Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome,
Im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret
A revival of one of my favourite musicals, Cabaret, returned to Broadway this year with the Kit Kat Klub once again taking over the legendary Studio 54. The production is guided by the team of Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes who co-directed the 1998 production, and Alan Cumming reprises his Tony-winning role as the Emcee who instructs the audience to "leave your troubles outside."
Cabaret, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, is based on the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, which itself was an adaptation of the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. The musical first debuted on Broadway in 1966 with Joel Grey as the Emcee and Jill Haworth as Sally Bowles. Directed by Harold Prince, it ran for 1,165 performances and spawned multiple revivals in New York and London as well as an Oscar-winning film in 1972.
Set in 1930s Weimar Berlin, Cabaret opens at the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy nightclub where second-rate performers, including an English good-time girl named Sally Bowles, and their audience are overseen by an androgynous Emcee. Cliff Bradshaw, a bright-eyed American, arrives in the city with plans to write a novel. He rents a room from Fräulein Schneider, a spinster being wooed by one of her boarders, Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. That night Cliff winds up at the Kit Kat Klub where he meets Sally who is immediately drawn to him. In a blink, she finagles her way into sharing Cliff's room and bed. At first life is beautiful and the actions of the rising Nazi party are ridiculed at the club (the Emcee “cheekily” displays a swastika on his behind) but soon reality creeps in. Herr Schultz’ shop is vandalized and Fräulein Schneider, afraid of losing the little she has, breaks off their engagement. Cliff, sickened by the realization that the errands he's been running for his friend, Ernst Ludwig, have been on behalf of the Nazi Party, is beaten up when he refuses to continue. He decides to return to America and begs Sally, who is now pregnant, to come away with him but Sally, unable to see beyond tomorrow, gets an abortion and returns to the club where she declares that “life is a cabaret, old chum" as Cliff departs and begins writing his book: "There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies ... and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany ... and it was the end of the world." The plays closes as it opened on the Emcee, only this time instead of suspenders and a bow tie, he’s dressed in a striped concentration camp uniform adorned with both a yellow star and a pink triangle.
One of the reasons why I love Cabaret is its wonderful score filled with a bevy of memorable songs from the opening Willkommen, in which the Emcee introduces the audience to the Kit Kat Klub boys and girls to the humorous Don’t Tell Mama to the naughty Two Ladies, to the chilling Tomorrow Belongs to Me (first heard as a recording played on a turntable). And, of course, there's Sally’s swan song, Cabaret, in which she promises that “when I go, I’m going like Elsie” (her roommate who died from excess). While most people remember the songs sung by the Emcee and Sally, there are also the songs by the older lovers, Herr Schultz and Fräulein Schneider, which shouldn't be overlooked: the sweet It Couldn’t Please Me More and the poignant Married.
And then there is the set. For this production, the orchestra and mezzanine of Studio 54 have been transformed into the Kit Kat Klub with cocktail tables and chairs replacing traditional theatre seats. The blurring of the line between stage and seating allows the audience to become part of the show as when the Emcee walks out and chooses people to dance with him. Another ingenious decision is placing the orchestra above the stage inside a large, lit-up picture frame. This use of space gives the actors an opportunity to make an entrance or observe the going-ons down below.
Much of the attention given to Cabaret has been about the performance of Michelle Williams as Sally. I was interested in seeing her but the night we went she was absent (she’s since left the production and Emma Stone is now donning the green nail polish) so her understudy, Andrea Goss, went on in her place. To be honest, I ended up not minding because Goss was a very good Sally. From her black-bobbed hair to her crisp English accent, she looked and sounded the part while her singing and dancing were great if sometimes almost too good (Sally, after all, isn’t suppose to be all that talented). Goss normally plays one of the Kit Kat girls, all of who showed off their various talents from doing slow cartwheels to baring their assets as did the Kit Kat boys.
There were also strong performances by Bill Heck as Cliff and Danny Burstein as Herr Schultz as well as Linda Emond who gave an especially moving performance as Fräulein Schneider. Yet the star was Alan Cumming as the Emcee—the man who guides you through the play and acts as witness to the disintegration of the world. To call Cumming fabulous sounds almost flippant; no one (apologies to Joel Grey) owns this role like Cumming. He is immensely talented and a pure delight to watch as he sings, dances (sometimes in drag), flirts with the audience, makes faces when he doesn’t get the laughs he wants, and finally stands as a symbol of what horrors the Nazis wrought.
Cabaret is at Studio 54 through March 29, 2015. For more information, visit here. Photos by Joan Marcus.