Opera companies do it all the time, so why not theatre companies? Roundabout presents a welcome revival of their acclaimed 1998 revival of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. Same designs, same theatre, same fabulous Emcee, new Sally Bowles.
Familiar as this version has now become, it bears reflecting on just how brilliant a job Sam Mendes and team did with the structure of the show. Rather than shoehorning in the movie hits, as is often done with Grease and The Sound of Music, Mendes oversaw an intricate weaving of the original stage show and the iconic 1972 movie. The movie’s “Money, Money” was an improvement on the stage’s “The Money Song.” “Don’t Tell Mama” (stage) and “Mein Herr” (movie) are equally great so, wisely, both were included. “Why Should I Wake Up?” and the interminable “Meeskite” were jettisoned, and Fraulein Schneider’s “So What?” and “What Would You Do?,” absent in the movie, were put back in, along with that most charming of charm songs ”It Couldn’t Please Me More” and a snatch of lyrics and melody from Telephone Song.” Schneider are far more poignant at their original older ages than the as the glamorous young movie equivalents. Cliff’s bisexuality is easily addressed in the anything goes atmosphere of the 1930 Berlin.
Much as this production has toured the world (I watched it in French at Folies Bergère, Paris), its spiritual home, for want of a better phrase, is the 1970s New York equivalent of the Kit Kat Klub, Studio 54. Darkly decadent pressed metal ceilings show a hint of gleam over the heads of buzzy patrons seated around small black tables topped by seamy red café lamps. Stairs, walkways and balconies create a labyrinth of entrance and exit possibilities, with the main action on an open, basically bare stage.
Alan Cumming returns to his breakout role a little older but with all of twinkle and charm to land the stream of smutty innuendo with a smile. Friskily agile, his world-weary patter is believable and his timing and comic judgment are honed to precision.
Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz are all the more vulnerable, believable and adorable in the hands of Linda Emond, who turns out to be a fine singer, and Broadway’s go-to character actor Danny Burstein. Special mention must go to quadruple threat Gayle Rankin who plays slatternly houseguest Fraulein Kost, sings and dances as Kit Kat Girl Fritzie, and plays the accordion. All this, and it is her Broadway debut!
Bill Heck is a masculine, handsome charmer as Clifford Bradshaw. Aaron Krohn maintains the mystery and guile of duplicitous Herr Ludwig.
The big question, of course, is what about Hollywood ring-in Michelle Williams? The audience seemed to all wondering the same thing, and when Sally finally came on for her first song, it was as if every audience member was leaning forward in anticipation of the moment she opened her mouth to sing.
Happily, her singing is excellent, possibly even better than her acting in the role at this stage. She can be soft and breathless, as she in “Maybe This Time,” and has a genuine solid belt, which she uses to bring down the house in the all-time great 11 o’clock number, “Cabaret.” Impossibly slight, Williams is like a white-blonde kewpie doll with big expressive Betty Boop eyes. A little sunny for the dark edges of Sally, she nonetheless convincingly entrances Cliff and conveys a graspingly selfish undercurrent that drives Sally at all costs.
All the characters are running as fast as they can just to stay on the spot. This is tense, spellbinding music theatre, with lashings of black comedy to ease the pain. Without doubt, a hit season lies ahead. Fans will be more than happy to return, and newcomers will be blown away.
Cabaret was reviewed 2pm 9 April 2014 at Studio 54, New York, where it officially opens 24 April 2014.