Cabaret Review: Second Cumming on Broadway

Cabaret WillkommenFrom the very beginning of the Roundabout’s re-revival of “Cabaret,” when a spotlight first illuminates Alan Cumming’s eyes — as if he has opened the rectangular slot in the door of a speakeasy deciding whether to let us in — and then switches focus to his beckoning hand, Cumming’s sensuous, sinuous, insinuating performance has us hooked.
cabaretlogoAs the Master of Ceremonies of the Kit Kat Club, a sleazy dive in Berlin during the anything-goes days right before the rise of the Third Reich, Cumming manages to be the most consistently entertaining and intriguing aspect of this production, presiding over the razzle-dazzle numbers, but popping up unexpectedly as well in many of the scenes that are supposed to take place outside the club. His ill-defined, almost abstract character is nevertheless the immoral center of the show, which takes us on his (and the world’s) journey from debauched to dark to desperate.
But there are many other reasons besides Alan Cumming’s mesmerizing performance to see “Cabaret,” which can lay claim to being one of the greatest musicals ever written for the American theater. There is an undeniably tuneful score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and a compelling story, based on the experiences of the American writer Christopher Isherwood in the Weimar Republic.
The show itself has been around for nearly half a century, a fact that seems to turn many into historians. It is true that Cumming is reprising a role that snagged him a well-deserved Tony in 1998, and that the current production directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall is a precise restaging of their earlier version, which ran until 2004 at Studio 54, the same theater where it is currently scheduled to run until January, 2015. I’m not sure why this bothers some people. If a show works, what’s wrong with repeating it?
The directors have re-created what was an early and effective foray into the now-common practice of immersive theater. We sit at little tables; there is a Kit Kat menu, which includes a German plate; the waiter/ushers are clothed like decadent Weimar playthings, part of an overall sinister chic sexy scheme by costume designer William Ivey Long.
Except for Cumming, the cast is new, and mostly splendid, right down to the slinky, scantily dressed ensemble and Kit Kat Band. Who knew there were so many good-looking, in-shape actors and dancers who could play musical instruments (or is it musicians who can sing and dance?) Standouts include Danny Burstein and Linda Emond, who were both just Tony-nominated for their roles as the Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz and the landlady Fraulein Schneider whom he woos; their songs are the least familiar, and all the more worth the listen. Bill Heck plays the character who is Christopher Isherwood’s stand-in Clifford Bradshaw; I am forever a fan of Heck because of his role in Horton Foote’s Orphans Home Cycle at the Signature Theater several years back; it’s great to know he can also sing.
The one drawback to staging such a familiar work is that it battles expectations set up by previous versions. It turns out to be hard to erase the memory of Liza Minnelli in the role of Sally Bowles, the foolish, self-dramatizing singer who develops a complicated relationship with Clifford. Michelle Williams, who was so believable as Marilyn Monroe in the film “My Week With Marilyn,” now essays the role of Sally Bowles in a startlingly different interpretation. There is a paradox at the heart of the character; Sally Bowles is supposed to be a second-rate talent, yet the actress playing her is given many of the show-stopping songs of the show. (If Sally were as good as Liza, why would she be playing some two-bit joint in Berlin?) Williams is thus perhaps portraying Sally more believably. Even when what she’s saying is supposed to be blithe and outrageous, Sally now seems just moments away from a nervous breakdown. Her happy-go-lucky exterior is much more transparently an act, and her immature behavior seems less recklessly adolescent than vulnerably childish: At one point, she conjured up for me a proudly pouting Shirley Temple in “On The Good Ship Lollipop.”
This is a legitimate interpretation, but the effect of her performance is to make the early numbers like “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr” less straightforwardly enjoyable, and to shift the center of gravity of the musical towards the Emcee. (The 1972 film belonged equally to Minnelli and Joel Grey.)
This is not a major sacrifice when Alan Cumming is there to “Wilkommen” us. If this “Cabaret” promises entertainment from the very first moments, the very last moments both clarify and chill.

Cabaret
Studio 54
Book by Joe Masteroff; music by John Kander; lyrics by Fred Ebb; based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood; directed by Sam Mendes; co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall; musical director/vocal arranger, Patrick Vaccariello; set and club design by Robert Brill; costumes by William Ivey Long; lighting by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari; sound by Brian Ronan; orchestrations by Michael Gibson; dance and incidental music by David Krane; original musical coordinator, John Monaco; hair and wig design by Paul Huntley; makeup design by Angelina Avallone; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht; production stage manager, Arthur Gaffin; associate choreographer/choreography re-created by Cynthia Onrubia; associate director, B T McNicholl.
Cast: Alan Cumming (M.C.), Michelle Williams (Sally Bowles), Linda Emond (Fräulein Schneider), Danny Burstein (Herr Schultz), Bill Heck (Clifford Bradshaw), Aaron Krohn (Ernst Ludwig) and Gayle Rankin (Fritzie/Fräulein Kost).
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
“Cabaret” is scheduled to run through January 4, 2015.

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About Jonathan Mandell
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

One Response to Cabaret Review: Second Cumming on Broadway

  1. Pingback: Broadway 2013-2014 Season Guide | New York Theater

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