REVIEW: Cabaret, Studio 54 ✭✭✭✭✭

Alan Cumming in Cabaret at Studio 54. Photo: Joan Marcus
Alan Cumming in Cabaret at Studio 54. Photo: Joan Marcus

Cabaret
Studio 54
17 April 2014
5 Stars

For many people, some of the great, defining musical theatre performances are those in the film versions of stage musicals. In the case of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, Yul Brynner in The King and I and Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music those people stand on strong ground – although La Andrews did not create the role of Maria Von Trapp on stage or subsequently play it. She was, like other stars, plucked from the possibilities to play a leading role in a film adaptation.

Of course, The Sound of Music was not, as film adaptations go, that great a deviation from the stage show. Other film musicals were adapted with less regard for the stage version which permitted their existence. Hello Dolly, starring La Streisand, and Cabaret, starring Liza Minelli fall into that category: successful, memorable films with central star performances which bear little resemblance to the parameters, fundamental needs, highs and lows of the progenitor stageshow.

The difficulty is that those films have been burnt into the collective consciousness and so, perhaps understandably, people coming to see those shows in the theatre expect a similar experience. But in the case of both Dolly Levi and Sally Bowles, the simple fact is that the theatre personas bear little, sometimes no, resemblance to those film star turns.

At the same time, the songs associated with these great characters have become standards and the world is well used to hearing numbers like Maybe This Time, Cabaret and Before The Parade Passes By as big, belted, show stopping bravura performances.

So expectations can get in the way of pitch-perfect performances.

But it would be a stupid person indeed who permitted such expectations to mar their enjoyment of the simply magnificent revival of Cabaret now playing at Studio 54 on Broadway. Directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, who also takes choreography duties, this is a revival of the Tony winning production they mounted in 1998. It is no doubt possible that that original production was better than this revival, but except in one small respect, it seems incomprehensible to me that it could have been.

For this is delicious, dazzling, delicate, and delightfully deviant in every way – it is a Cabaret in title, form and heart. It is hilarious in one moment and painfully tragic in the next. Some things are overplayed, rightly, others are underplayed, also rightly but perhaps surprisingly, and the joy of the wonderful songs from Kander and Ebb is constantly juxtaposed against the seedy, awful and heartbreaking lot of the main characters.

The staging is compact and precise. Often, the wooden stage is bare. Lighting (Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari) plays a great part in evoking emotional responses and the vignettes on stage are never accidental and always perfectly done. The simple spotlight almost becomes a character in the drama.

The direction is nothing short of brilliant. The pace never lets up, even in the pauses the heart of the piece thumps resolutely forward. And the choreography is grubby, remarkable, finely tuned and completely thrilling. William Ivey Long excels himself in the costume department: elegant and salacious, each outfit is exactly right for the directorial conceit here.

The ensemble seems entirely composed of quadruple threats: gifted actors, singers, dancers and band members. They play minor roles, seduce the audience, dance evocatively and play all the music. They are phenomenal. And when the MC says “the orchestra is beautiful” he is in no way gilding the lily; the orchestra is smoking hot.

The musical direction (Patrick Vaccariello) is impeccable, the balance and tone excellent, the emphasis on lyrics clear. The singing throughout is terrific, the harmonies clean and strong.

Alan Cumming plays the MC with a ferocity that is dazzling. He is in tremendous physical shape and up to all of the demands of this most eclectic of parts. He ad-libs wonderfully when the occasion permits and while he is very sexual and very funny, he is also capable of great depth: his rendition of I Don't Care, in full torch song mode and glittering sequinned frock, is frightening in its intensity. Hearing him, you understand what the phrase “sing your heart out” actually means.

Equally touching, and beautifully done, was If You Could See Her Through My Eyes, delivered here by Cumming as though it was written yesterday. And Two Ladies was a comic sensual overdose as Cumming and a girl and a boy-girl frolicked and cavorted in unrestrained pleasurable wickedness.

The MC here is constantly roving the stage, appearing out of the darkness to create havoc or make a point or join a kick-line or expose a Sawstika tattooed bare arse or shine a light on a matter of importance. Cumming never stops, never flags, attacks the role with unflinching gusto. He is terrific in every possible way.

I have seen some wonderful Fräulein Schneiders in my time but, honestly, what Linda Emond does here with the role is sheer perfection. She sings both her songs with surprising vocal power (who knew she had such a strong, trained singing voice?) and is deft at portraying the inherent sadness of the character and the tremendous possibility for happiness that comes and then is viciously taken from her. Her immaculate, desolate rendering of What Would You Do? is, in every way, stunning. Triumphant.

As Herr Schulz, Danny Burstein is quite wonderful. Genial and hopeful, his amiable German Jew is a sheer delight. He provides the backbone of the emotional horror of the evening and he does it flawlessly. The moment at the end of Act One when his world comes crumbling down as the Nazis come closer and his heritage is revealed is staggeringly effective, underscored by the melancholic Tomorrow Belongs To Me.

The two most problematic roles in the show are Cliff and Ernst, but this version of the script softens the clunky edges of the original script and in the hands of two gifted and charming actors, they become more than ciphers. Bill Heck is a manly bisexual Cliff, troubled by his career and his inability to write but entranced by the world that the Kit Kat Klub offers. He brings a suave assuredness to his relationship with Sally and at the same time establishes a true bond with the German Ernst.

Aaron Krohn is outstanding as Ernst and presents truly the real dichotomy of the ascension of the Nazis: he is an ordinary German, patriotic and sensible, who takes on the rhetoric and ideology of the party. Because Krohn makes Ernst winning rather than slimy or manipulative, the profound horror of his Nazi affiliation is keenly felt. As Fräulein Schneider feels it, so does the audience. And this all helps us understand Cliff.

Gayle Rankin does not hit every mark as Fräulein Kost but she hits most of them. Perhaps it is just the quality of the other cast members, but there is something jagged and disconnected about her performance. At its highest though, this is but a small quibble.

From the ensemble, there is particularly good work from Leeds Hill (Bobby), Dylan Paul (Victor), Kristen Olness (Helga), Kayleigh Cronin (Lulu) and Evan D. Siegel as Rudy. Each brings a special luminous quality to their work – it is hard to take your eyes off them.

As Sally Bowles, Michelle Williams blazes with incandescent energy and tremulous spot-on fragility; she is flawless in every respect.

Sally Bowles is a second rate performer, an English refugee scraping by a living in Berlin thanks to lecherous patrons and louche fellow performers. As a character in the stage show, or from Isherwood's original novel, she is not the fiery siren created on celluloid by Liza Minelli, flawed as a character though she undoubtedly was.

No.

Sally Bowles does not sing really well, she does not dance really well and she is a broken, lost, doll-like figure used to rough ill treatment. She has dreams but she is self-defeating. While she can burn brightly, she always burns out.

Williams captures that character exactly. She is thoroughly English, almost a demented escapee flapper. Pert, decadent and outrageous, she epitomises wilful self indulgence and insular determination.

Her turns in Don't Tell Mama and Mein Herr were truly fun – full throttle engagement with the would be diva. Insightfully, and to immense dramatic effect, she turns Maybe This Time into an introspective lament, full of pain, longing and the expectation of disappointment. This is no belted anthem – it's a cry from the heart, a wish for real engagement, a recognition of the folly that is life. It's magnificent.

But the true surprise comes in the Eleven O'Clock number, the title song: Cabaret. Williams approaches this song from a fresh and unique perspective. It becomes just as cathartic for her Sally as Rose's Turn is for Momma Rose in Gypsy. It was as if the song had never been heard before: every note was pulsing with regret and pain and anger. An entirely original performance. Hearing her sing her soul into this number will count as one of the great experiences ever encountered on a Broadway stage.

And her eyes…the harrowing look in her eyes as she recalled Elsie and then raged against her fate…utterly mesmerising.

Williams has delivered a towering performance here – one that is thought through, utterly believable, fragile, decadent and etched in misfortune and desperation.

She is, bar none, the best Sally Bowles I have ever seen or heard.

Sorry Dame Judi.

This is, by far, the best version of Cabaret I have ever seen. Do anything to see it.

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