'Cabaret': Theater Review

Cabaret Production Still - Publicity - H 2016
Joan Marcus

Cabaret Production Still - Publicity - H 2016

Not perfect but see it anyway.

The touring production of the multi-Tony-winning Broadway revival hits Hollywood for a limited engagement, featuring Andrea Goss and Randy Harrison.

It doesn't matter if the actor playing Sally Bowles, the high-spirited, broken-down chanteuse at the heart of Cabaret, has a show-stopping voice. While that might sound like sacrilege to Liza Minnelli fans who recall her Oscar-winning performance from the 1972 movie, the character from author Christopher Isherwood's 1939 Berlin Stories, one of the show's sources, is a third-rate singer whose dreams of a career outside the seedy confines of the Kit Kat Klub are just that — dreams. Leading the touring company of the Tony-winning revival, Andrea Goss brings her full-throated mezzo voice to a performance that manages to marry a champagne high with a gin-soaked hangover. Alan Cumming won a Tony for reinventing the lewder-than-louche Emcee, a role that won Joel Grey both an Oscar and a Tony. Stepping out of the tux and into a bare-chested web of suspenders with nipple glitter is Randy Harrison (Queer as Folk) in this gritty and tattered but thoroughly enjoyable revival of a revival.

In the beginning were Isherwood's stories combined with John Van Druten's play, I Am a Camera. The 1966 Kander and Ebb musical inspired the Bob Fosse movie and the current revival, which has its seeds in Sam Mendes' 1993 show starring Jane Horrocks at London's Donmar Warehouse. By the time it moved to New York in 1998, Rob Marshall signed on as co-director and choreographer for Roundabout Theatre Company's production starring Natasha Richardson, who was not known for her singing. She won a Tony anyway, with the show taking three more awards, including best actor for Cumming. Ten years after that hit production closed came the 2014 revival at Studio 54, with Cumming returning opposite Michelle Williams (also not known for her singing), followed by Emma Stone and Sienna Miller.

Dispensing with the razzle-dazzle audiences may remember from Fosse's film, directors Mendes and Marshall, their work overseen by B.T. McNicholl in the touring production, present uncomplicated choreography far removed from the alluring sexuality of the movie. While both versions commodify sex, here there is no hard sell or shapely bodies to seal the deal — just bare skin and availability as dumpy chorines gracelessly thump around in their underwear, biding time between money-making trysts. When not performing, they lounge around set designer Robert Brill's two staircases that flank the stage, or up on the catwalk where the band watches over the action.

It is New Year's Eve and change is in the air, though not the good kind, as the Weimar Republic drowns itself in self-indulgence. At the same time, so does Sally Bowles, a transplant from London's tony Mayfair district pursuing a singing career in Berlin. Married to a dream that is more of a nightmare, she floats freely amid the pansexual debauchery and epic inebriation of the period. Sally just wants to sing, dance and have a good time, and Berlin is the perfect place until the Nationalist Socialist Workers Party begins to show its true colors.

Petite with a pageboy haircut and dark eye shadow, Goss looks like a Tim Burton character with a stubborn optimism brought to life in her duet "Perfectly Marvelous," with her new Herr, American author Cliff Bradshaw (Lee Aaron Rosen). It's there again moments later in her solo, "Maybe This Time," a hopeful air that flies in the face of dire circumstances. Goss' blithely oblivious portrayal has more in common with Minnelli's than more recent interpretations. Despite Sally's transgressions she is fetchingly bawdy and good-natured but lacks the nuance and darker tones of the show's tragic themes until her climactic number, the ironically ebullient title song, "Cabaret." In a moment of stark resignation, reality finally overcomes Goss' optimism as she bitterly spits out the lyrics, slamming the mike to the floor at the end.

But through no fault of her own, Goss is unable to hold center stage with Harrison's flamboyant Emcee prancing and strutting like a deranged, oversexed escapee from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He unabashedly sets the tone with the opening number "Willkommen," committing fully to a demanding role throughout, and achieving mostly positive results as he tries to tread the line between impish and demonic.

Through Marshall's choreography, the implicit sexuality behind the lyrics of "Two Ladies" is made explicit — a farcical menage a trois performed in silhouette by Harrison, flanked by Dani Spieler as Lulu and Leeds Hill in drag as Bobby. The show's most unsettling number, "If You Could See Her," is a capricious love song sung by Harrison with a gorilla girlfriend. Innocent enough except it sits juxtaposed to Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson), lamenting his wedding to Fraulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran) being canceled because he's a Jew.

Schultz and Schneider nearly usurp center stage throughout. The slow-burn romance between the fruit seller and his landlady is the only relationship outside the topsy-turvy world of the Kit Kat Klub. The characters were largely excised from the movie, foregrounding the younger couple, but the revival gives the older couple equal time. Their sweet duet, "It Couldn't Please Me More" is a prologue to a relationship based not on sex or money but on commonalities, warmth and human kindness. They are the most relatable characters in Cabaret, comprising the heart of the show as well as the ideal to which Bowles and Bradshaw aspire.

While Goss' portrayal of Bowles is playfully empathetic, Bradshaw remains something of a ghost. Playing a young author aiming to complete a novel while in Berlin, Rosen rises to the occasion in the thankless role of a passive narrator taking in the city's nightlife, though we seldom see him outside his room. When Bowles becomes pregnant, he plans to marry her and return to the U.S. despite the fact that they appear to be nothing more than good friends with benefits.

Bradshaw's first acquaintance upon arriving in Berlin is Ernst Ludwig (Ned Noyes), a regular guy seemingly of a similar age and disposition. By the end of the first act he is revealed to be a Nazi, a fact that fails to startle anyone but Bradshaw. The cast stands idly by as Schultz becomes a target, with some, like Fraulein Kost (Alison Ewing), actively playing along, unmindful of the fact that they may be next. Partying into the apocalypse, the show's finale features a morbid reprisal of "Willkommen" with the cast bathed in a ghostly white light, the specter of extermination. And although the gang at the Kit Kat Klub may be damned in the end, there's one thing they make sure of — Cabaret is a damn good time.

Venue: Pantages Theatre, Hollywood
Cast: Randy Harrison, Andrea Goss, Shannon Cochran, Alison Ewing, Mark Nelson, Ned Noyes, Lee Aaron Rosen, Kelsey Beckert, Sarah Bishop, Margaret Dudasik, Lori Eure, Aisling Halpin, Leeds Hill, Andrew Hubacher, Joey Khoury, Tommy McDowell, Samantha Shafer, Evan D. Siegel, Dani Spieler, Steven Wenslawski
Director: B.T. McNicholl
Original Director: Sam Mendes
Original co-director and 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 designer: Robert Brill
Lighting designer: Peggy Eisenhauer, Mike Baldassari
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Sound designer: Keith Caggiano, based on Brian Ronan
Orchestrations: Michael Gibson
Music director: Robert Cookman
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company