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'Cabaret': Theater Review

Michelle Williams in Cabaret - P 2014
Joan Marcus
Michelle Williams in 'Cabaret'

The Bottom Line

Willkommen back.

Venue

Studio 54, New York (runs through March 29, 2015)

Cast

Alan Cumming, Michelle Williams, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Bill Heck, Aaron Krohn, Gayle Rankin

Directors

Sam Mendes, Rob Marshall

Michelle Williams makes her Broadway debut opposite Alan Cumming in this electrifying revival of Kander & Ebb's Berlin-set musical, directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall.

NEW YORK -- When news surfaced that Roundabout Theatre Company was planning a return engagement of its wildly successful 1998 Cabaret revival just ten years after it closed, some pundits wondered if it was too soon. Rubbish. For one thing, this audacious Brechtian musical set against the rise of Nazism in Weimar-era Berlin will always be relevant, and its glittering score by John Kander and Fred Ebb ranks among Broadway's finest. For another, 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.

Like another Kander & Ebb jewel, Chicago, this groundbreaking 1966 show was ahead of its time, continuing to evolve both in subsequent stage productions and screen versions, as audience sensibilities caught up to the material's dark cynicism and sinister allure.

Mendes first produced this revelatory revival at London's Donmar Warehouse in 1993, with Cumming starring opposite Jane Horrocks. It moved to Broadway five years later, with Marshall boarding as choreographer and co-director and Natasha Richardson stepping in as Sally. Staged in the former Henry Miller Theatre, refitted by designer Robert Brill as the seedy Kit Kat Klub, the show moved soon after to a venue with its own decadent past, Studio 54, where it now returns. The production won the Tony for best musical revival, as well as lead acting honors for Cumming and Richardson and featured actor for Ron Rifkin.

Even for those of us who experienced it the first time around, this atmospheric revival is a bracing ride. Its combination of brashly sexualized razzle-dazzle, infectious hedonism and hopeful romance is underscored by apprehension that gives way to the inexorable stranglehold of evil. Those elements were all there in more muted form in Joe Masteroff's book for the musical, based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories and John Van Druten's play, I Am a Camera. But they have been considerably darkened in this staging, which climaxes with a disturbing coup de theatre that represents the final transition from illicit pleasure to complicit inhumanity. It's far from subtle, as the production's detractors have pointed out, but it's unsettling and highly effective.

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Cumming is now 20 years older than when he first played the pansexual Master of Ceremonies, and his seductive performance in this career-defining role remains a knockout. Presiding not only over the Kit Kat Klub scenes but every moment of the story that takes place outside those walls, he can be saucy and insinuating, cruel and menacing, downright debauched or dead-eyed and cold, often all at once. Wearing ratty trousers and suspenders over a bare torso with rouged nipples, he slithers around the winding staircases and scaffolds of Brill's set, his hands idly groping a chorus girl or boy with insouciant ownership. Whatever the Emcee's unhealthy pallor and bruised skin might suggest, Cumming's performance is fiercely alive.

His songs are, without exception, superb -- the Kurt Weill-style carnival barker intro of "Willkommen"; the bawdy three-way romp of "Two Ladies"; the wicked paean to filthy lucre, "Money"; and the melancholy torch song "I Don’t Care Much," for which costumer William Ivey Long has dressed Cumming in an elegant beaded gown and drop earrings, like a faded flapper. The Emcee's soft-shoe with his gorilla girlfriend, "If You Could See Her," is classic Kander & Ebb, a teasingly playful comic number that ends with a stinging slap of anti-Semitism. But perhaps the show's most chilling moment has Cumming crouched over a gramophone playing a scratchy recording of the Nazi anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," sung with haunting sweetness by a boy soprano (Alex Bowen).

Marshall tips his hat to Bob Fosse in the grinding suggestiveness of his dance moves. But audiences familiar with Cabaret only via Fosse's brilliant 1972 screen reinvention will encounter a significantly different entertainment here. While Liza Minnelli's Sally was all madcap, adorable exuberance masking a core of desperation, her stellar vocals made it seem this girl could be slaying Carnegie Hall if she weren't slumming it in Berlin. But Sally is a third-rate singer whose phony facade hides the corrosive anxiety of someone who wants more than anything to be an original but knows she doesn't have the talent for it. And that's exactly how Williams plays her.

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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. Her voice is not the strongest, which is right for the role, but she aces her sassy club numbers, "Don't Tell Mama" and "Mein Herr" (one of three songs interpolated from the movie), shifting from naughty little girl to man-devouring siren with ease.

There's a riveting hard-soft dichotomy in Williams' performance. On one hand, she's the coke-snorting, armor-plated Sally who uses her frivolous disinterest in politics as an excuse to ignore the encroaching horror. On the other, she's the fragile creature who dreams of love and fulfillment while never quite convincing herself that those things are within reach. That ambivalence is wired into her self-deceiving rendition of "Maybe This Time," standing almost motionless behind a radio microphone. Even more moving is her take on the title song, a gut punch of emotional wreckage behind a shaky veneer of determination. "Life is a cabaret" becomes less an affirmation than a howl of despair.

The first-rate cast includes terrific work from Bill Heck as the Isherwood stand-in Clifford Bradshaw, a sexually fluid American writer willingly caught up in Sally's whirlwind yet, unlike her, unable to remain blindfolded. The roles of Cliff's landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and her Jewish fruit-merchant tenant, Herr Schultz, were casualties in Fosse's movie. But as played by the gifted Linda Emond and Danny Burstein, their broken romance is heart-wrenching, as essential to the show as the bumpy relationship between Sally and Cliff. And their songs are right up there with the best of Kander & Ebb. Gayle Rankin is also strong as the Nazi-sympathizing hooker, Fraulein Kost.

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Played by a 19-piece brass-heavy band whose members double as Kit Kat performers, the superlative score -- there's not a weak number in the show -- has rarely sounded better. Credit goes to Patrick Vaccariello's music direction and Michael Gibson's punchy orchestrations. Just hearing the entr'acte instrumental of "Cabaret" performed with such verve by the disreputable-looking bunch, crammed into designer Brill's crooked frame, is a joy.

Mendes and Marshall have precision-tooled the production so that its hard, diamond edges glisten with sweat and sparkle. Their staging is tight as a drum, underlining the musical's ingenious construction while briskly maneuvering through abrupt modulations of tone. Those shifts are mirrored in the lighting by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari, which makes clear distinctions between the smoky sleaze of the nightclub and the scenes outside, blurring the lines as those worlds overlap. The most bewitching effect occurs in "Married," tenderly sung by Emond and Burstein, as a shower of mirror-ball reflections washes over the audience. That it's followed by a stark return to reality is typical of a bold show that defies us to remain detached.

Venue: Studio 54, New York (runs through March 29, 2015)

Cast: Alan Cumming, Michelle Williams, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Bill Heck, Aaron Krohn, Gayle Rankin, Kaleigh Cronin, Benjamin Eakeley, Andrea Goss, Leeds Hill, Kristin Olness, Jessica Pariseau, Dylan Paul, Jane Pfitsch, Evan D. Siegel

Director: Sam Mendes

Co-director & choreographer: Rob Marshall

Music: John Kander

Lyrics: Fred Ebb

Book: Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood

Set & club designer: Robert Brill

Lighting designers: Peggy Eisenhauer, Mike Baldassari

Costume designer: William Ivey Long

Sound designer: Brian Ronan

Orchestrations: Michael Gibson

Music director & vocal arrangements: Patrick Vaccariello

Executive producer: Sydney Beers

Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company