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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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Cabaret Reviews and Photographs

“Cabaret,” the Kander and Ebb musical about a naif in pre-Nazi Germany, is opening on Broadway for the fourth time, almost half a century after its first production, starring Alan Cumming reprising his role as the Master of Ceremonies, and featuring the Broadway debut of Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles. It is directed by Sam Mendes, co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall. 

What did the critics think?

Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater:From 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…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.”

Jesse Green, New York Magazine: “It’s an irony of this production, which for all my quibbles is nevertheless excellent and needs to be seen, that it is most excellent in the old ways: the pre-Cabaret ways.”

Joe Dziemianowicz, Daily News: Great musical dramas like “Cabaret” — entertaining, tuneful and illuminating — are all too rare.Though Michelle Williams is credible but not memorable in her Broadway debut as songstress Sally Bowles, her performance can’t mar the Roundabout’s redo (re-revival?) of its Tony-winning 1998 take at Studio 54.

Ben Brantley, NY Times: A little more than 16 years after it first opened, and only a decade after it closed, it feels as if the popular Roundabout Theater Company production of “Cabaret” never left Studio 54…. Alan Cumming, who won a Tony as the nasty M.C. in 1998, is back, offering a slightly looser, older-but-wiser variation on the same performance. The show’s co-directors, Rob Marshall (also its choreographer) and Sam Mendes, have returned, too, along with their ace design team, and they haven’t messed around much with a successful formula….The promiscuous, hard-partying Sally is now embodied by a very brave Michelle Williams, who doesn’t look all that happy to be there. I’m assuming that’s more a matter of character interpretation than of personal discomfort, but it does put sort of a damper on the festivities.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety:  “Alan Cumming must have sold his soul to the devil to acquire his divinely debauched persona as the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub in “Cabaret.” It seemed nuts, but proved shrewd of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall to retool their dazzling 1998 revival of the Kander and Ebb masterpiece, fit Cumming with a new trenchcoat for his triumphant return, and bring the decadent netherworld of 1920s Berlin back to Studio 54, the revival’s ideal venue. Inspiration flagged, however, in casting Michelle Williams, so soft and vulnerable in “My Week With Marilyn,” as wild and reckless party girl Sally Bowles.”

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press:   a revival of a revival, this “Cabaret” …is as thrilling as ever, a marvel of staging…One big change is the woman in the bob: Michelle Williams makes her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles and she does an excellent job, playing both scared and daffy superbly and singing with real heart….Cumming is as lascivious as ever….Not much is new here. But great things don’t always need them.”

Linda Winder, Newsday:  “Cumming is better than ever — wiser, more dissipated, even more deeply entertaining in the role he stunningly recreated from Joel Grey’s iconic original. And that freshness is so infectious it spills over into a landmark production that closed in 2004 but feels, with one uneasy exception, as confident — and about as dangerous — as if it has been running ever since. The exception, alas, is Michelle Williams…Her Sally is timid, bland and covered up in costumes that make her seem almost chaste.”

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: “There’s simply no wrong time to revisit Sam Mendes‘ and Rob Marshall‘s thrilling production, which is even sharper this time around, with Alan Cumming reprising his louche Emcee alongside Michelle Williams‘ shattering Sally Bowles…Underneath her cultivated Mayfair accent and party-girl bravado, Sally can’t quite hide the fear that people will see through her. Williams, whose ability to convey porcelain vulnerability makes her such a compelling screen actress, ideally captures that duality. What’s more surprising is the assurance with which she handles the song-and-dance requirements. “

Dave Quinn, NBC New York:  “The Roundabout Theatre Company has produced an exact restaging of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s 1998 Tony-winning production. From the Playbill cover design to the fringe on the lamps of the tables of the Kit Kat Klub, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a time machine. That’s not necessarily a bad thing….“Cabaret” is a seductive piece of theater, beautifully designed and with stellar performances throughout.”

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: 5 out of 5 stars:  “Why so soon? A better question might be: Why not? This Cabaret is a superb production of one of the great Broadway musicals of all time—an exhilarating, harrowing masterpiece. In Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s staging, Cumming is the corroded soul of the show; he haunts it and intrudes on it, magnetically mercurial….Cumming’s bouncy downtown energy keeps Cabaret from seeming like a period piece, and his new costars pull their weight.”

Matthew Murray, Talkin Broadway: “This Cabaret is today what it’s always been: a terrible idea brilliantly executed, an erotic embrace that crushes the material it’s ostensibly trying to arouse. Remounting, rather than rethinking, what was done in 1998 only exacerbates the old problems, and though this version served then, as now, as a necessary corrective for the dull and sloppy 1987 revamp, it’s tough not to wish a decade and a half had inspired wisdom to employ tactics other than photocopying.”

David Finkle, Huffington Post: the overall feel is of something being recreated by the numbers….The electricity that charged the air in 1998 and for the length of that run is somehow missing.

 

Top 10 Lists of Top 10 Best Theater 2013

TopTenNYCTheater2013b

 Twelfth Night and The Glass Menagerie are on most critics’ top 10 lists of the best theater of 2013  — but not all (Time doesn’t have either.) Other critical favorites: Here Lies Love (9 of the 13 critics chose this), Matilda (7), Pippin (7), Buyer and Cellar (6), Fun Home (5).  The Flick (5), After Midnight (5) and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (4). These top 10 critics’ picks are half-and-half Broadway and Off-Broadway.

I was early with my Top 10 List of the best plays and musicals in 2013 (summarized in picture above), and added a list of 10 Most Beloved Theater of 2013 That Baffled, Bored or Bugged Me — beloved by others, in other words, not me. (the second picture)

Belove Theater Baffled, Bored or Bugged Me

For equal time, I took a poll of the worst Broadway show of 2013.

Here are lists of Top 10 theater from other critics, in no particular order. Many deviate from a literal Top 10 list, either by shoving in more than 10, or by listing alphabetically.

Ben Brantley, New York Times, cheats in two ways: He offers 15, not 10, and after the top 2, he lists his choices alphabetically

1. The Glass Menagerie

2. Twelfth Night

3. All That Fall

4. Buyer and Cellar

5. The Designated Mourner

6. Fun Home

7. Here Lies Love

8. The Jacksonian

9. Julius Caesar

10. Matilda

11. The Model Apartment

12. Mr. Burns An Electric Play

13. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

14. Passion

15. Regular Singing/The Apple Family Plays

Jesse Green, New York Magazine, also cheats, but not as much:

1. The Flick

2. Fun Home

3. The Glass Menagerie

4. After Midnight

5. Passion

6. Nikolai and the Others, AND
Regular Singing (two separate plays by the same author Richard Nelson)

7. Here Lies Love

8. The Domesticated

9. The Assembled Parties

10. “The British Double Bills” — in other words, the Broadway productions of four plays: Twelfth Night, Richard III, Waiting for Godot, No Man’s Land

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press

1. The Glass Menagerie

2. Pippin

3. Matilda

4. Kinky Boots

5. The Sound of Music on NBC “but Broadway was in its DNA”

6. The Last Five Years

7. Twelfth Night

8. Waiting for Godot/No Man’s Land

9. Buyer & Cellar

10. “The look of Macbeth” (the Ethan Hawke one)

Joe Dziemianowicz, Daily News

1. Fun Home

2.  Twelfth Night

3. The Glass Menagerie

4. Here Lies Love

5. Pippin

6. Regular Singing

7. Violet

8. Buyer & Cellar

9. “Cyndi Lauper….the very best thing about Kinky Boots”

10. Disaster

Elizabeth Vincentelli, New York Post, listed alphabetically

1. After Midnight

2. Buyer & Cellar

3.The Good Person of Szechuan

4. Here Lies Love

5. Julius Caesar

6.  Matilda

7. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

8. Mr. Burns, A Post-Electri Play

9.  Pippin

10. Twelfth Night

Richard Zoglin, Time Magazine

1. Matilda

2. Here Lies Love

3. The Model Apartment

4. Belleville

5. The Flick

6. Domesticated

7.  Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

8. Saint Joan

9. Macbeth (the one with Alan Cumming)

10. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York

1. Good Person of Szechwan

2. Twelfth Night

3. Pippin

4. The Assembled Parties

5.  The Glass Menagerie

6. Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

7. Here Lies Love

8. Grimly Handsome

9. Fun Home

10. RoosevElvis

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

1. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

2. After Midnight

3. Buyer and Cellar

4. The Glass Menagerie

5. Here Lies Love

6. Matilda

7. No Man’s Land

8. Pippin

9. The Flick

10. Twelfth Night

Charles Isherwood, The New York Times, listed alphabetically:

1. After Midnight and What’s It All About (two separate “jukebox musicals.”)

2. Belleville

3. The Flick

4. A Gentleman’s Guide To Love And Murder

5. Good Person of Szechuan

6.  Life and Times: Episodes 104

7.  Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

8. “Shakespeare in the Park” (i.e. The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labour’s Lost)

9. Twelfth Night/Richard III

10. The Winslow Boy

Adam Green, Vogue Magazine

1. Twelfth Night/Richard III

2. Here Lies Love

3. “The Public Theater’s 2013 Season”

4. The Glass Menagerie

5. Then She Fell

6. Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

7. The Flick

8. Matilda

9. Belleville

10. The Revisionist

Green adds “Note: I would have included the musical Hands on a Hardbody on this list, but the fact that my sister wrote the lyrics and cowrote the music (with Phish front man Trey Anastasio) would have made it suspect.”

Max Windman, AM New York

1. Matilda

2. Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike

3. Fiorello!

4. Twelfth Night/Richard III

5. Pippin

6. 700 Sundays

7. Buyer & Cellar

8. Good Person of Szechwan

9. Bad Jews

10. Fun Home

USA Today does their top 10 theater list in a weird way, coming up with Tony-like categories:

Best play: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Best book musical: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Best musical revue: After Midnight

Best revival of a play: The Glass Menagerie

Best revival of a musical: Pippin

Best vehicle: The Nance (for Nathan Lane)

A couple of swells: Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land andWaiting for Godot

Most divine divas: Bette Midler in I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers and Billy Porter in Kinky Boots

Disguised among their best list, they also give out worst awards:

Most overrated musical: Matilda the Musical

Actor most palpably pleased with his own performances: Mark Rylance inTwelfth Night and Richard III

Double toil and trouble: Two cursed Macbeths

Worst. Date. Ever.: First Date

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Alan Cumming will say “Macbeth” even in the theater, despite The Curse of The Scottish Play

Alan Cumming's Macbeth is coming to Broadway

Alan Cumming’s Macbeth is coming to Broadway

Defying the long-held superstition about the dangers of saying the name “Macbeth” inside a theater, Alan Cumming replied to my inquiry:

“I am going to say Macbeth everywhere, even in the theatre. None of this ‘Scottish play’ stuff for me!”

Responses so far have ranged from
peter foy ‏ Yir doomed, doomed ah tell yi.

to

Peter A Bell Quite right! It’s bad luck to be superstitious

to

accounts that the superstition is real:

Robert Gray: I was playing the Dr and someone mention the word & Lady M nearly died in the Dr scene

Alan Cumming’s one-man Macbeth is playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater from April 7th through June 30, 2013.

Update: 

How did “The Curse of The Scottish Play” superstition begin?

It goes back to the very beginning of Shakespeare’s play, according to legend, when “Macbeth” was presented to King James in 1606. The boy playing Lady Macbeth suddenly got sick backstage and died. Two centuries later, fans of a rival American actor rioted when British William Macready was performing the play, the infamous Astor Place Riot of 1849, in which 22 people were killed.

But this is not just long-ago history or legend. You cannot dissuade modern-day actors from believing in the curse. Here is page 301 of Patti LuPone’s memoir, discussing what happened during a production of “Gypsy” on Broadway when director Arthur Laurents “said out loud what must never be said inside a theatre: He uttered the actual title of the Shakespearean tragedy we call ‘the Scottish Play.’

“Theatre people are notoriously superstitious, and saying the name Macbeth backstage or in a dressing room is the biggest, darkest superstition of them all. It’s taken seriously with good reason. Actors can tell tales of accidents and close calls after someone uttered the word. Soon it began happening to us, too. Things started to go wrong. The curtains got snarled in the “Rose” light at the end of “Rose’s Turn.” Sami Gayle, our Baby June, fractured her pelvis warming up  and missed the Broadway opening. This was serious stuff, and something had to be done before there were any more mishaps. Lenora pulled me aside and was adamant that Arthur break the curse. She had a deep look of concern on her face, as if she’d be next in the line of injuries.

“The ritual to break the curse of the Scottish Play is very specific, and more than a little peculiar. In accordance with the time-honored procedure, I made Arthur go outside onto West Forty-fourth Street, only because that’s where I found him backstage—right next to the door. It was almost thirty minutes before we were due to go on. He was baffled at my insistence that he go through this ritual. He was outside on the street and I told him through the closed door to turn around counterclockwise three times, spit over his left shoulder, curse, then knock on the door and ask to come back in. Well, we heard him swear like a drunken sailor, even though there was a line of ticket holders standing next to the door, intrigued or horrified by the sigh of Arthur Laurents spinning, spitting, and swearing. But it had the desired effect, and the spell was broken.”

2nd Update:

Alan Cumming may say the name of the play, but the producers don’t want the audience to — or at least, they’ve come up with an attention-getting sign on the doors to the Ethel Barrymore Theater: “…The producers ask that you please refrain from speaking the name of the play…”

Broadway Marquees: Macbeth, Orphans, The Nance, The Trip to Bountiful

Alan Cumming accompanied the installation of the marquee for “Macbeth”

AlanCummingMacbethmarquee

The stars were not present when Orphans went up

Orphans marquee picturing cast Alec Baldwin, Shia LaBeouf and Tom Sturridge

 

NanceBountifulMarquees

 

 

All four shows are opening in April:

 

“Orphans” is opening at the Gerald Schoefeld on April 7th.

“The Nance” is opening at the Lyceum Theaater on April 15th.

“Macbeth” is opening at the Ethel Barrymore on April 21st.

 

“The Trip to Bountiful” is opening at the Stephen Sondheim on April 23rd.