Thursday, July 10, 2014

Willkommen Back

Review: Cabaret

Alan Cumming, reprising his Tony-winning role as the Emcee, leads the nubile denizens of the Kit Kat Klub in Roundabout's revival of Cabaret.

When Roundabout Theatre Company announced they were remounting Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall's acclaimed, Tony Award-winning production of Cabaret, the news was understandably greeted with some scepticism.  Roundabout made very clear that this would be a near exact recreation, boasting the same creative team and Tony-winning star - Alan Cumming, reprising his near-legendary performance as the Emcee - of a production that had only closed on Broadway 10 years prior.  It all sounded like a shameless cash grab, something the nation's largest non-profit was doing to finance the rest of its season rather than something born out of any artistic need or urgency.

Thankfully, while all of the above may be true, this resurrected Cabaret is a powerful interpretation of one of the undisputedly great musical dramas.  Nothing about Mendes' recreated staging feels canned or stale, and this representation of the decadent days proceeding the second World War is both highly entertaining and deeply unsettling.  This is a show with something important and downright challenging to say (an all too rare occurrence in contemporary musical theatre), and with the exception of one key piece of casting it is carried off with such artistic integrity and assurance that only a fool would begrudge Roundabout's return to the Kit Kat Klub.

For those who have never seen Cabaret, the show takes place in 1930s Berlin right before the Nazis' ascent to political dominance.  Bisexual American novelist Cliff Bradshaw moves to the city looking for inspiration for his next book, and is soon pulled into the exhilaratingly seedy world of the Kit Kat Klub, which is overseen by an otherworldly Emcee and headlined by the free spirited Sally Bowles.  Cliff and Sally move in together and begin a romance, while their landlady Fraulein Schneider is wooed by a Jewish fruit seller named Herr Schultz.  As the country's Nazi leanings become more pronounced, all of the characters are forced to decide whether to continue their carefree, pleasure-focused lives in the face of mounting political tension.

Cabaret remains a rock-solid piece of theatrical writing, featuring perhaps the finest collection of showtunes Kander and Ebb ever created during their 50-plus years of collaboration (this production has smartly incorporated several songs the pair wrote specifically for the movie, including "Mein Herr" and "Maybe This Time").  Joe Masteroff's libretto expertly juggles multiple plot threads while creating multifaceted characterizations, and the show tackles some very big issues in a way that is digestible without diminishing their importance or complexity. 

Co-directors Mendes and Marshall (who also handled choreographic duties) expertly guide the narrative with clarity and precision, nailing the juxtaposition of tones for maximum theatrical effect.  Celebrations of life's decadence such as "Willkommen" and "Two Ladies" are intoxicatingly delightful, while the scenes between Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider are positively charming.  But the show can turn on a dime to deeply unsettling, powerfully staged moments like "If You Could See Her," the Act I closer "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," or the show's chilling final tableau.  Mendes and Marshall make excellent use of Masteroff's book and Kander and Ebb's score to lull the audience into a false sense of complacency before springing the show's more disturbing elements on us, demonstrating just how easily anyone can be caught unawares by life's dark side.

All these years later, the Emcee remains Alan Cumming's signature role, and the Scottish actor is every bit as astounding as one could hope.  Cumming's voice remains virtually unchanged, and he exudes a carefree confidence tinged with a hint of menace.  Cumming is game for pretty much anything, from performing lewd gestures to dancing overtly sexual choreography to donning various androgynous costumes (or sometimes wearing almost nothing at all).  At first genial, Cumming becomes slowly unhinged and more antagonistic as the evening wears on, and by the time he asks, "Where are your troubles now?" during the finale, it's as much an accusation as anything else, implying that human selfishness is what allows tragedies like to Holocaust to happen.

As Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, Linda Emond and Danny Burstein are close to perfection, with an easy chemistry and a gravitas that makes their relationship the heart of the show.  And while Burstein is well-known for his musical theatre chops, Emond's play-focused career has denied the world of hearing her fantastically strong voice until now.  Bill Heck acts the role of Cliff with conviction, and Aaron Krohn is excellent as Ernst Ludwig, the charming Nazi sympathizer made all the more unnerving by his utter normalcy.  The cast and ensemble (who also doubles as the orchestra) are uniformly excellent, with one very notable exception.

Unfortunately, that exception is Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles.  The Oscar-nominated actress is making her Broadway debut, and while no one can accuse her of resting on her laurels, she gives a deeply misguided and ultimately unsatisfying performance.  Probably miscast, Williams has moments of strength and a surprisingly sturdy singing voice (remember that Sally is supposed to be at best a second rate singer, a fact the movie ignored in favor of casting the excellent Liza Minelli).  But Williams' performance rings false thanks to a collection of character tics that don't really work for her.  She constantly shakes and has an entirely unplaceable accent, making it unclear whether Sally is an addled drug addict, putting on an adopted persona, on the brink of a nervous breakdown, or some combination of all three.  Whatever it is, it doesn't really click, making a character that has in previous versions been defined by her authenticity feel fake and untruthful.  It's also unclear what about this Sally makes Cliff, who as played by Heck clearly prefers men to women, stay with and ultimately fall in love with such a deeply damaged individual.

Everything and everyone around Williams is excellent, and there is plenty to recommend this revival (especially to those who missed the production the first time around).  But the role of Sally is such a pivotal one that Williams' labored performance does bring the show down a notch or two.  With another actresses in the role, this Cabaret would easily be one of the best things running on Broadway.  As is, it is still a strong production of one of the musical theatre's greatest dramatic works, an adult work just as interested in challenging the audience as it is in entertaining them. Fans of that kind of theatre should definitely head over to Studio 54 and heed Cumming's opening entreaties to "bleibe, reste, stay."

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