Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 24, 2014
Cabaret 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 & choreographed by Rob Marshall. Set and club design by Robert Brill. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer, Mike Baldassari. Orchestrations by Michael Gibson. Dance & incidental music by David Krane. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Cast: Alan Cumming, Michelle Williams, with Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Bill Heck, Aaron Krohn, Gayle Rankin, Will Carlyon, Kaleigh Cronin, Caleb Damschroder, Benjamin Eakeley, Andrea Goss, Leeds Hill, Kristin Olness, Kelly Paredes, Jessica Pariseau, Dylan Paul, Jane Pfitsch, Evan D. Siegel, Stacey Sipowicz.
The glasses are definitely off at this revival of a revival, which has inherited everything, but everything, from its original 1998 go-around except (most of) the cast. And without the zesty appeal of freshness, the sense of critical Broadway taboos being broken, this is not so much a place where you realize that life is beautiful, to quote the demonic Emcee (played, as 16 years ago, by Alan Cumming), but that it's frequently instead coyote ugly.
This is not an inappropriate interpretation, of course. Joe Masteroff's book even encourages it: Based on John van Druten's 1951 play I Am a Camera and Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, its view of a sextet of people who either fight against or with the cultural evolution in pre-Nazi Weimar Germany before being swallowed whole by it, filters everything through the lens of the Berlin Kit Kat Klub nightspot.
There, the reality of this most unreal of situations explodes into entertainment that should simultaneously thrill and chill. The songs (with music by John Kander and lyrics by the late Fred Ebb), which comprise insinuating uptempos, cagey ballads, laments of and odes to desperation, and flat-out showstoppers, are spine-tinglingly terrific, not just painting souls at their barest and darkest but a country, and in fact a civilized world, spiraling out of control.
But elements such as Marshall's relentless, piledriver-pelvis-thrust choreography (recreated by Cynthia Onrubia), the scraping-by seediness of Robert Brill's set, and William Ivey Long's self-consciously immodest costumes, paint the Klub as a place already in decline, which leaves no room for the conceptual tragedy to develop. Sally and Cliff's hearts, for example, can't erode when they're not there to begin with, which as tweaked in the libretto here (in the 1966 original production, Cliff was straight) they simply aren't. Who cares when the Emcee, menacing from the get-go, cavorts in song and dance with a gorilla representing Germany's evolving view of the Jew? It's not like there was ever any humanity here to subvert. And the finale, though visually striking, is heavy-handed and off-tonedevoid of subtext just when that should be all that's left.
The devotion to style is admirableand it really is total, down to the use of ensemble members in the band (in a way that, unlike John Doyle's, evinces some dramatic justification)but it's not enough for the underlying ideas to make sense. 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.
The upshot is that if you saw and liked this Cabaret the last time around (it closed in 2004), you'll probably like it now. The score remains unbeatable, even if the specific selection of numbers (drawn from the previous stage versions and the 1972 film) can sometimes feel haphazard and nonsensical. The supporting roles are expertly filled, with Linda Emond a compellingly empty Fräulein Schneider, whom you believe unquestioningly would sacrifice her chance at happiness for the certitude of existence; Danny Burstein a likable, but hardly shrinking, milquetoast Herr Schultz; and Aaron Krohn and Gayle Rankin quietly threatening as Ernst and Fräulein Kost. And though each new book of Cabaret makes Cliff more of a nonentity, Bill Heck brings a deflated vivacity to the part that comes as far as any I've seen to retrieving it from obscurity.
Cumming remains a commanding Emcee, savoring each salacious step he makes and note he sings. Less suavely terrifying than engrossingly ugly, he's a flawless model for what Mendes and Marshall are going for, and a charismatic center around which the evening can be structured. Reveling in the rot around him and contributing to it as much as he's able, this Emcee may not appear dangerous but is decadent after a fashion, and, overstated a portrayal as it may be, it more than fulfills its role as society's disquieting fulcrum.
Sally, alas, is another matter. To the limited extent to which this Cabaret has a heart, she's ither rise, fall, and rise again mirroring that outside the Klub's doors. But Michelle Williams (the films Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine, and My Week with Marilyn) depicts not a Sally who's not ready for that responsibilitywho could be?but one who's not old enough to understand it. Her chirpy voice acquires a bit of weight while singing, but when speaking Williams comes across as adolescent: a tiny girl who's given up even pretending to be a woman.
This is who Sally is on some level, so the portrayal works in a basic way. But Williams never molds that raw, childlike material into the adult who intentionally chooses to forsake her maturity. Williams's Sally sees everything as happening to her, and plays into that so much that when the story eventually demands her direct involvement, she has none of it to give. The less Sally and Cliff fit, and the more trapped she becomes, the more lost Williams is, until the final scenes, when she's recognizable as nothing more than a wisp of an illusion beneath Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari's lights.
That includes during the title song, when Sally should be most confronting the pain she so desperately wishes to ignore, but she shoves her microphone stand away with the flailing arms of a toddler's tantrum about a stolen doll. To be fair, all the manufactured hedonism doesn't help anyone except Cumming latch onto a reason for being. They're all degenerates on the way down, some by action some by inertia, but all babies in their own way. Expertly articulated as this Cabaret is, it would be even better if Mendes and Marshall saw it a place fit for, and welcoming, grown-ups.