Sunday, April 27, 2014

Review of "Cabaret" - Broadway

In 1998, when the previous revival of Cabaret opened on Broadway, the revisionist remounting of the musical was somewhat shocking, primarily in the presentation of the Emcee.  Gone was the tuxedo-clad, asexual nature of the Kit Kat Klub host that Joel Grey, who starred in the original 1966 production, made so famous.  Instead, the part was given a radical makeover as the role of the Emcee, now scantily dressed in shirtless overalls, among other guises, was more overtly debauched and sinister.  The Kit Kat Klub, in the reconceptualized show, was a considerably more hedonistic and debased environment.

I bring this up because so much has changed within our society in the past 16 years--culturally, aesthetically, and morally.  What stunned or offended in 1998 seems rather tame today.  Back then reality television was just entering our vocabulary.  The Internet, and all its salacious applications, was still vastly unknown to mainstream America.  Facebook, YouTube, and Goggle hadn’t even been launched.  How does all of this relate to the recently opened revival of Cabaret?  While the musical is a first-rate production, the shock value has been significantly deflated.  What is presented on-stage is nothing worse then the average fare shown on cable television or even prime time network shows. 

Studio 54 is once again the home for the revival of Cabaret.  Theater style seating has been removed and supplanted with very small tables and chairs for audience members.  Small lamps with red, beaded shades adorn each table giving the interior of the theater the ambiance of a Berlin cabaret.
As the musical begins, we are introduced to the Emcee portrayed, as in 1998, by Alan Cummings.  While licentious, sexually amoral, with a good helping of raunchiness thrown in, his schtick is less revolting and offensive then in the previous production.  The Emcee oversees the wickedness and naughtiness in the club’s environs, not only from the stage of the Kit Kat Klub but, from overhead, where a large, empty frame sits askew.  It gives him and the audience a window into the decadent, overindulgent world of pre-Hitler Germany both inside and outside the Klub.  As Nazi storm clouds gather, the story focuses on Cliff Bradshaw (Bill Heck), an American would-be novelist, and his relationship with young Sally Bowles (Michelle Williams), the night club’s headliner.  A secondary plot revolves around the blooming romance between Fraulen Schneider (Linda Edmond), an aged proprietress of a rooming house, and Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein), an older fruit vendor who also happens to be Jewish.

The action nimbly switches between the lewd and bawdy entertainment within the Kit Kat Klub, where song and dance provide biting social commentary, to the lives of the protagonists trying to make sense of the great political and social upheaval looming on the horizon.

The first-rate cast, led by Alan Cummings and Michelle Williams, is finely tuned and provocative.  Cummings, as the deprived master of ceremonies, convincingly portrays a being that is angry and contemptuous of life, exuding a depravity that is both frightful and pathetic.  Michelle Williams, making her Broadway debut, fashions a highly impressionable introductory presence as the world-weary entertainer.  Glamorous, yet despondent over her status in life, she is thoroughly believable whether as the party-is-never-over girl or as the dispirited downcast.  She demonstrates a fine singing voice that exudes both her emotional highs and lows. Linda Emond is marvelous as Frau Schneider, a jumble of apprehension, confusion, and anticipation.   She has a magnificent voice, which resonates throughout the theater.  Danny Burstein is sublime, as Herr Schultz.  At first reserved, he becomes more vocal and buoyant later only to be thrust back to the hardened realities of being a Jew in 1930’s Germany.   The role of Cliff Bradshaw, played admirably by Bill Heck, has always given me pause.  As the questionably bisexual American writer, he is crucial for the plot to move forward, but his character is so one-dimensional, lacking the gradiated shading of the other characters.

The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb is one of the composing team’s best.  Melodic with sharply observant lyrics it includes such timeless classics as “Willkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Perfectly Marvelous,” “What Would You Do,” and “Cabaret.”  The young band, suggestively clad, located above the stage and comprised of members of the acting troupe, are a tightly led group under the direction of Patrick Vaccariello.  There musical accompaniment is fluid and enhances each of the musical numbers.

Choreographer Rob Marshall provides stylish dance routines that are a combination of sensuality and raunchiness.  Within the confines of the Kit Kat Klub, movement is key.  The denizens of the establishment strut, pose, and parade themselves around the dance floor in an almost adulterated ballet. 

Directors Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes put the initial focus on Alan Cummings’ lascivious Emcee, sort of a cold water jolt for the theater going crowd.  He is not only at the center of the semi-controlled anarchy within the Kit Kat Klub, but his prurient presence is also utilized as an observant specter of events unfolding within Berlin.  The two directors skillfully shift between the lewd and vulgar setting of the nightclub to the quieter, yet tension-filled scenes within Frau Schneider’s rooming house.   The interplay between Cliff and Sally comes across as somewhat forced, but the relationship between Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz is tenderly yet, heartrendingly, played.  Overall, Mendes and Marshall allow the drama within Joe Masteroff’s book to slowly build to its bittersweet and tragic finale. 

Cabaret, worth a visit for those that missed the revival’s run the first time around, playing now at Studio 54.

Note:  Some word usage in this review has been gleaned from a previous review of Cabaret.

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