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Toronto by Antonio Tan

Cabaret with Joely Fisher

In a satirical song-and-dance number commenting on a relationship between a Jewish grocer and a spinster landlady in the new revival of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret that recently had its Canadian Premiere at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre, the Emcee dances with his girlfriend. He, in a white suit, and she, in a lovely printed dress, dance a soft shoe, while the Emcee sings about his forbidden relationship with this girl of his – who happens to be a gorilla, by the way.

It’s funny and it’s charming. But when the Emcee, with a sinister grin on his face, looks deadpan at the audience and utters the most famous and the most penetrating punchline of the show, the audience doesn’t utter a single laugh, but sits stunned in realization of their honest mistake.

That particular song - "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" – is the perfect microcosm of this new revival directed by Britain’s wunderkind stage director, Sam Mendes (currently receiving critical acclaim for his film debut with Dreamworks’ American Beauty). It is a carefully crafted revival that thoroughly entertains and makes all the realities of a Weimar-era Berlin seem oblivious under the audience’s noses. The unabashed display of sexuality and heroin chic onstage at the fictional Kit Kat Klub seems vulgar, but it is this accurate depiction of the late 1920’s night clubs of a Berlin on the eve of the Third Reich that proves most effective in shocking – and also entertaining – the generally conservative Toronto audiences. It makes this story about two doomed relationships set against a pivotal historical backdrop all the more absorbing, all the more gripping, and all the more provocative.

Cabaret is best known as the Academy Award-winning 1972 film directed by Bob Fosse, which starred Liza Minnelli as the cabaret singer Sally Bowles, and Joel Grey as the Kit Kat Klub Emcee, who repeated his Broadway triumph. The film is arguably the best movie musical, but is actually quite different from the stage version. For one, the film eliminates the romantic subplot between the landlady and the Jewish grocer, and replaces that with a lesser known subplot from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, on which Cabaret is based, between a rich Jewish girl and a repressed Jewish student.

Another major difference is the overall mood and direction of the film, which follows the manner in which Harold Prince directed the original Broadway production of the show (subsequent productions used the original blueprint). In the film and the previous stage productions, the Kit Kat Klub and its characters are all polished. The Kit Kat girls are plump and jovial, Sally Bowles is a tad too optimistic despite the political and personal turmoil, and The Emcee, clean-cut in his black tux and painted face, remains emotionally distant throughout, without much of a progression in character. The title song is an upbeat anthem, swastikas are prevalent, and societal outcomes are hinted at the end, although not directly addressed.

In the new revival, Sam Mendes holds back from marching out the swastikas, and successfully keeps the audience somewhat unaware, or complacent, of future implications without much use of the controversial logo, keeping the audience seduced with the Kit Kat Klub’s lewd and raunchy entertainment. The audience becomes the people of Berlin, emotionally fast asleep, revelling in their obsession with American culture, passing off any apparent warning or serious consideration of the Nazis with a "Who cares?" attitude.

The Emcee (played here by a suave and charismatic Norbert Leo Butz), with glittery nipples and suspenders around his crotch, is reminiscent of the sexually-charged character of Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s film "A Clockwork Orange." Where Joel Grey’s Emcee was a naughty, German expressionist marionette, making suggestively sexual comments and going as far as slapping a woman’s ass, The Emcee of this new production is a crotch-grabbing, breast-grabbing pansexual, making passes at both sexes onstage and off. And where Joel Grey’s Emcee remained as a constant throughout, the Emcee’s character is allowed to progress – or transform – in this production.

Here, Sally Bowles (played here by a diminutive, yet strong-voiced, Joely Fisher of TV’s "Ellen" fame), is depicted as a wasted, cocaine sniffing, naïve young woman, and an even more tragic figure. Instead of strutting onstage emanating optimism like Minnelli on film, Fisher makes her entrance by stumbling her way to the front of the stage a nervous wreck, starting off the title song timidly, with her eyes scanning the audience. With her voice cracking, volume increasing, and her hands clutching the microphone, she sings "Life is a cabaret old chum/Only a cabaret old chum/And I love a cabaret" with angst and cynicism, smashing the microphone stand to the stage.

The Kit Kat Klub boys and girls here are scantily clad, with tattoos, bruises, track markings, and expressionless faces, dancing with poor timing and precision (done here intentionally to make this environmental staging more realistic). The girls here look more like prostitutes than the respectable plump Bavarian women in bowler hats and unripped stockings as seen in the film or earlier stage versions.

What remain unchanged and similar to the film and the original stage production are the plot and several of the songs, although the Joe Masteroff book has been shortened, and songs from the film ("Maybe This Time" and "Money") have been added. The clever, witty, and bittersweet Kander and Ebb score sounds its best here with the new Michael Gibson orchestrations, and the concept of the songs acting as sideline commentaries or complements to the plot is even more effective, especially with the poignant "Married."

Alma Cuervo as Fraulein Schneider, the Jewish landlady, and Hal Robinson as Herr Schultz, the Jewish grocer, give heartbreaking performances, while Rick Holmes is serviceable as Clifford Bradshaw, the American writer who has a torrid relationship with Sally Bowles, and Jeanine Morick as Fraulein Kost, the prostitute, is superb.


Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Book by Joe Masteroff; based on the play I Am A Camera by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood. Directed by Sam Mendes; co-directed choreographed by Rob Marshall. Scenic design by Robert Brill; costumes by William Ivey Long; lighting by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari; music director, Keith Thompson; musical supervisor, Patrick Vaccariello; orchestrations, Michael Gibson. The Toronto engagement of the Roundabout Theatre Company production presented by David and Ed Mirvish and Pace Theatrical Group/SFX Entertainment in association with Eric and Scott Nederlander & Jujamcyn Productions. At the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West, Toronto.

WITH: Joely Fisher (Sally Bowles), Norbert Leo Butz (Emcee), Rick Holmes (Clifford Bradshaw), Hal Robinson (Herr Schultz), Alma Cuervo (Fraulein Schneider), Drew McVety (Ernst Ludwig), and Jeanine Morick (Fraulein Kost)

September 8 – October 16, 1999 at The Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto. Call (416) 872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.

-Antonio Tan
For what's playing in Toronto, visit On Stage Toronto

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