Friday, April 25, 2014

REVIEW: Cabaret

Review of the Sunday, May 20 matinee preview performance presented by The Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54. Starring Alan Cumming, Michelle Williams, Danny Burstein and Linda Emond, with Bill Heck, Aaron Krohn and Gayle Rankin.  Book by Joe Masteroff. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb.  Choreography by Rob Marshall.  Direction by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall. 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: A+

Tony eligible or not, the return of Cabaret is by far the best musical revival of the season, and the best musical, period, of the 2013-2014 season.  It remains as tightly assembled, meticulously directed and emotionally satisfying as ever.  And the new cast is near perfection.

I won't take up too much time discussing the technical elements as they remain largely unchanged from the 1998 staging.  Suffice it to say that the design team of Robert Brill (set and club design), William Ivey Long (costumes), Peggy Eisenhauer and Michael Baldassari (lighting) and Brian Ronan (sound) were and are in top form.  And as with the direction and choreography, their attention to the smallest details is superb.  From the broken proscenium and traffic-worn stage floor, to the broken lights and tattered table lamps, and the broken women in the torn, traffic-tattered costumes, everything about the look of this production reeks of the desperation and sleazy, second-rate quality of the Kit Kat Kub and its inhabitants, and all framed by the unforgiving metal stairs and beams trying unsuccessfully to keep the menace of the Nazi regime at bay.

Alan Cumming and the Kit Kat Klub Boys and Girls
The triple-threat ensemble sings, dances and plays with a cynical weariness, a disdain for all, and a sexual awareness that betrays the long-term effects of a carefree and decadent lifestyle, free of inhibition and moral compass.  Whether they are stomping their way through a production number (intense choreography by Rob Marshall), romping behind a screen in silhouette, or standing on the sidelines staring us down, they create an atmosphere that is simultaneously creepy and intoxicating - the sort of euphoric paranoia that happens when you take one last drink or snort that takes you just over the edge.  They are, to a person, terrific.  And all guided by the razor-sharp direction and concept of director Sam Mendes (with Marshall), whose attention to detail creates a series of moments that alternately thrill and crush us with poignancy.  The eerily sinister whispering of "Welcome to Berlin," the silent dancing against the hard wall of doors, the gradual darkness of each cabaret number, and the final tableaux that end each act - each of these and more make the hairs on my neck rise at their memory.

Of all of the principal cast, only one comes off like a weak link, and it really surprises me to say that about Danny Burstein.  It isn't really that he does anything wrong or even badly.  And isn't that he has the least meaty role of the cast.  It's just that he doesn't make a very strong impression with the time he has on stage.  Happily, the rest are top-notch.  Aaron Krohn expertly embodies the rise of the Nazi party, from Ernst Ludwig's sly, ingratiating first scenes, to his steady manipulation, and right through to his chilling fanaticism.  And there's the narcissistic Fraulein Kost ,whose hedonistic lifestyle is a harsh reminder that bad times will make even the strongest among us do whatever is necessary to feel happiness, and, ultimately, to survive.  Gayle Rankin brings this complex cautionary tale of a woman to scorching life with particularly deft skill, considering how little stage time she has.  Together, they are a sort of spider-fly combination that makes their act one finale, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," haunting and scary.

Heck, Williams, Burstein and Emond
The catalyst for bringing the story of Cabaret out of the Kit Kat Klub and into "reality" is Cliff, a sexually confused (he wants it all) American looking for something to write about.  As played by the charming, handsome and strong Bill Heck, he is the perfect counterpoint to all of the madness around him.  One wishes he had more to sing.  The ultimate survivor, Fraulein Schneider, is played with steely strength and quiet pathos by the amazing Linda Emond (please give this woman a shot at that featured actress Tony).  With barely a movement or gesture, Ms. Emond commands the stage every time she is on it; both of her solos ("So What" and "What Would You Do/") are so richly performed, they are mini-musicals all by themselves.  Brava!

Of course, the big draw here is the above-the-title duo of Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams.  And they do not disappoint.  Thanks to the crane accident that closed the original Kit Kat Klub (aka Henry Miller's Theatre) in 1998, I missed Mr. Cumming.  He was worth the 16 year wait.  It is lucky for all of this year's potential nominees that he won't be eligible for a Tony this year, for he would surely win.  His performance is legendary and with good reason.  Even when he is merely lurking in the shadows watching us watching him, you can't help but follow his every move.  At times quirky, and other times threatening, there is no doubt who runs this show.  Gone is any trace of cuteness of Emcees past. Amazing.

Michelle Williams
I did manage to see several Sallys last time around, though I missed the late great Natasha Richardson.  But of the ones I did see, Ms. Williams is easily the best.  She manages to use her immense acting chops to create the perfectly average talents of Ms. Bowles - after all if Sally were that good, she would certainly not be scraping the bottom of the barrel at the Kit Kat Klub.  Her Sally can keep up with the best of the girls - take that for what it is worth - and her shaky Piaf-esque vibrato still manages to captivate our ears, even as we recognize that she's lucky to have the job she does.  Ms. Williams is a magnetic, scrupulously detailed actress, who presents us with a woman used to getting her way with a smile and any variety of sexual favors.  When she's confident, this Sally has the ways of a cat lurking on top of a very thin fence - quick, lithe and precariously balanced.  But when life's problems threaten that balance, her moves become exponentially jerky and off kilter.  If she doesn't stop talking - or drinking - nothing can hurt her.  Right.  The centerpiece of this superlative performance is probably the best - and angriest and most heartbreaking - rendition of the title song I have ever heard.  I held my breath through the entire number and was a shivering mass of goose flesh and tears as she threw down the microphone, the audience roared, and the spotlight faded.  I would pay premium prices just to witness that six minutes again.

Time has been very kind to this groundbreaking piece of theatre.  The shock value of its in-your-face presentation may have lessened - Heaven knows it set the new standard in that department, all else are mere followers.  But the frightening final moments of it all are sadly coming into modern view again, making Cabaret just as relevant as ever.  And perhaps even scarier.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)


1 comment:

  1. Fantastic lighting design. Tony should go to Mike Baldassari


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