Critic's Notebook: Emma Stone in 'Cabaret'

Cabaret Production Still - H 2014
Joan Marcus

Cabaret Production Still - H 2014

The actress currently onscreen in ‘Birdman’ makes her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles in the hit revival directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall

Rarely does an in-demand movie star join the cast of a Broadway show as a mid-run replacement. After all, there's no chance of awards recognition, every possibility of unfavorable comparison with the part's originator and critics can play the blame game if a production has shed some of its initial luster. So hats off to Emma Stone for demonstrating her hunger to tackle an iconic musical theater role by stepping in seven months after the opening of Cabaret.

And doing a commendable job of it.

It was no secret that Stone had to drop out of negotiations to play Sally Bowles due to scheduling conflicts when the return of the smash 1998 Broadway revival was first being planned. The classic John Kander and Fred Ebb musical set against the rise of the Nazis in Weimar-era Berlin reopened in April this year at that former temple of New York decadence, Studio 54. Directed with equal parts dazzle, sleaze and foreboding by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, the production stars Alan Cumming, reprising his Tony-winning role as the lascivious Emcee who bids us an insinuating "Willkommen" to the notorious Kit Kat Klub.

Read more 'Cabaret': Theater Review

Some theater insiders raised a cynical eyebrow at Roundabout Theatre Company for resuscitating the production only ten years after it closed. But the deluxe overhaul it was given more than validates its place in the Broadway landscape. Commercially savvy recycling is part of what keeps the economic wheels turning.

Rather than just drag the costumes, sets and props out of storage, Mendes and Marshall drilled the new ensemble to deliver a tighter show, both more exciting and more unsettling. Music director Patrick Vaccariello assembled a knockout orchestra with an especially impressive brass section to play the hell out of Kander's ageless score. First-rate theater actors including Linda Emond, Danny Burstein and Bill Heck, as well as gifted newcomer Gayle Rankin, breathed fresh dimensions into the key supporting parts. And alongside Cumming — whose command of this signature role has grown more devilish in the 20 years since he first played it at London's Donmar Warehouse — Michelle Williams was cast as Sally.

Critics were divided about Williams' performance, but count me among the admirers of her nuanced take on the role. She played Sally as a cracked porcelain kewpie doll, proclaiming her unconventional sophistication while trembling at the risk of being unmasked as just another no-talent lightweight. 

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The fear is more carefully concealed in Stone's quite different Sally Bowles, who seems less self-deceiving about the limits of her resources. Ultimately, she's the same brash British expat party girl, frightened of suddenly having her invitation rescinded. But in Stone's harder-edged characterization, she clings aggressively to any distraction she can find to avoid facing her emptiness. Whereas fragility and vulnerability were Williams' keynotes, there's combative defiance beneath Stone's bubbly facade.

The radiance Stone exudes in her film work is appealing precisely because it's so unforced. Her best screen roles share self-possessed candor, cool intelligence and warmth, even when she's playing cynical, like the angry daughter fresh out of rehab in Birdman. Perhaps the fact that Sally is the extreme opposite of Stone's usual characters — a woman wholly defined by her affectations — is what attracted her to the role. And she makes it work even if it's not a natural fit.

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In terms of her vocals, however, she only narrowly scrapes by. Stone appears most confident in the lighter numbers like "Perfectly Marvelous." She sells the coy coquette act of "Don't Tell Mama" with saucy humor, and looks like she's having fun playing the brassy heartbreaker in "Mein Herr," wearing a leather coat and commandant's cap over a lacy bustier. (She does fine with Marshall's dance moves.) But the thinness of her voice weighs on the more emotionally revealing numbers, "Maybe This Time" and "Cabaret," with the orchestra often threatening to drown her.

However, that lack of vocal assurance doesn't prevent Stone from giving an affecting performance. In her final scenes, she becomes a wraith-like figure, clinging to her illusions even as she's watched them shatter. Sally's pluck is demolished, but she'll keep up the pretense because it's all she knows how to do.

Emma Stone appears in 'Cabaret' at Studio 54 in New York through Feb. 15, 2015.