Review: “Cabaret”

A scene from Cabaret
A scene from Cabaret

RECOMMENDED
Where: The PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
When: through Feb. 21
Tickets: $25-$108
Phone: 800-775-2000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

If you didn’t see director Sam Mendes and co-director/choreographer Rob Marshall’s revisionist revival of “Cabaret” for Roundabout Theatre Company in 1998 (which built on Mendes’ 1993 London revival), or the revival of the revival at the notorious Sudio 54 in 2014, don’t miss the Roundabout’s 50th anniversary tour of the show at the newly renamed PrivateBank Theatre (previously the Bank of America Theatre) for a too-brief run.

In fact, even if you did see one of those productions, go to this one, too. It’s a stunning reminder of how a savvy reconception can illuminate an original, even if that original is the already extraordinary 1966 musical by Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics). And, as some may forget, that musical was based on the 1951 play “I Am a Camera” by John Van Druten—whose “London Wall” was recently produced by Griffin Theatre—which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s short 1939 novel, “Goodbye to Berlin.”

What Mendes and Marshall did—and touring company director BT McNicholl continues—is to darken and deepen the decadence in the Berlin of 1929-1930, so that almost everything from the Emcee’s opening “Willkommen” on is drenched in irony. He exhorts the audience to forget their troubles in the Kit Kat Klub, but the ambiance is so tawdry, the people are so desperate, and impending disaster encroaches so steadily, that’s impossible to do.

Virtually every moment and every encounter also is charged with sexuality, from the dirty dances of the Kit Kat girls and boys to something as innocent as a pineapple. The song “Two Ladies,” instead of being performed by the Emcee and two Kit Kat girls, pairs him with a girl and a boy, giving the menage a trois a new twist, heightened by sex acts in silhouette behind a curtain. The bisexuality of Clifford Bradshaw (a somewhat bland Lee Aaron Rosen), the American writer who comes to Berlin to work on his novel, is blatant here, instead of just suggested as in 1966 and in the 1972 film, and so is his discomfort at having people know about it.

A far cry from original Emcee Joel Grey in a tux with rouged cheeks, the Emcee here has suspenders outlining his crotch and red nipples. In 2014, Alan Cumming reprised what was his breakout role in 1993 and 1998, but for the tour Randy Harrison does a good job of combining a totally artificial kind of effusive, oily charm with an edge of menace. He’s also our guide to what’s going on in the world, which in the design is simultaneously inside and outside the club, so he appears in many guises including as a police officer or two. At the same time, what happens to him at the end says in no uncertain terms that the party is over.

The Emcee also lurks around the edges of the tentative romance between boardinghouse owner Fraulein Schneider, sensitively played by Chicago actress Shannon Cochran with a blend of world-weary resignation and survivor’s grit, and her boarder Herr Schultz (a sturdy, unsentimental Mark Nelson), the Jewish fruit merchant who, blind to reality, thinks that being German will protect him from danger and that the political problems will pass. These scenes are crucial to the show’s meaning and message, but it took Mendes and Marshall to really integrate them into the rest. Among other things, the abrasive Fraulein Kost (Alison Ewing) and Nazi Ernst Ludwig (Ned Noyes) turn the older couple’s engagement party from a celebration into a looming catastrophe with their rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” at the end of Act I.

Of all the characters in denial about the collapse of their way of life, Kit Kat Klub singer Sally Bowles arguably is the most willfully self-deluded and self-destructive. The late Natasha Richardson won a Tony Award in the role in 1998, and Michelle Williams took it on in 2014, but petite brunette Andrea Goss is spot on as a girl who is a complete mess. A fast-talker who always seems nervous for fear of rejection, she’s reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, only sadder. Her obvious fragility makes her afraid of change, so even though she worms her way into Cliff’s life when she gets fired and has nowhere to go, she pulls away when he becomes attached to her and wants to take her back home to Pennsylvania. Goss sings Sally’s big numbers well, making the title song a drunken howl for help rather than a cry of defiance. The only thing that’s a bit odd is her British accent, which comes and goes.

Memorable individual performances notwithstanding, “Cabaret” is most impressive as a whole. The ensemble is outstanding, and so is the onstage orchestra made up of Kit Kat girls and boys under music director Robert Cookman. Robert Brill’s bilevel set design, with spiral staircases on either side and a central, tilted picture frame, serves the material well and is enhanced by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari’s lighting. William Ivey Long’s costumes ooze raunchy sensuality, at least the ones that are supposed to do. Even Keith Caggiano’s sound design works better than often is the case at the downtown theaters.

If I could see this “Cabaret” anywhere I wanted, it would be in a smaller theater, but since this is what we’ve got, go for it.