by Loren Noveck · May 2, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #86 Loren Noveck looks at Cabaret at Studio 54
In 1998, when Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes’s production of Cabaret was first produced in New York, it genuinely brought something new to Broadway. It was the American debut of Alan Cumming, playing a seductively polysexual, cross-dressing Emcee, shifting among a black leather trenchcoat, a bare chest, and a cocktail dress: sinister, brash, and erotic all at the same time. It turned first Henry Miller’s Theatre and then the erstwhile Studio 54 (converted for this production and run by the Roundabout ever since) into a facsimile of a Weimar nightclub, with the orchestra audience seated at cocktail tables and offered drink service by usher/waiters in racy costumes. It doubled the Kit-Kat boys and girls with the Kit-Kat band, visible on an upper level above the stage and with the orchestrations worked out so that performers could pick up and put down instruments throughout. And it highlighted the show’s underlying drumbeat of fear over the Nazi rise to power in Germany with a few powerful ending punches.
Sixteen years later, this revival is a very literal re-presentation of that production (which ran for more than five years, closing in 2004), down to an older and more famous Alan Cumming. Now, Cumming is known almost as much for that sexually flamboyant persona as for his considerable gifts as an actor; the onstage band has become a regular feature in shows as varied as Violet and American Idiot; and the show’s depiction of fluid sexual identities--not only Cumming’s Emcee but the bisexuality of the show’s young American Everyman, Clifford Bradshaw--feels much less radical now that Hedwig is on Broadway just a few blocks farther downtown.
Which isn’t to say Marshall and Mendes’s vision doesn’t hold up. In some ways, the show itself seems more current and relevant than ever, as does the in-your face sexiness of Marshall’s choreography: Joe Masteroff’s book based on Christopher Isherwood’s stories set in the decadent bubble-about-to-burst city of Weimar Berlin; and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s songs, some of them raunchy, some touching, some darkly cynical. Cabaret depicts a city at the end of an era of libertinism, a city where “Money makes the world go round” and the rent payment gets harder and harder to find for the regular folks; where the threat of populist (and popular) fascism holds a shining appeal to the desperate and downtrodden survivors of recent economic catastrophe.
Cliff Bradshaw, an ambitious but naive American writer, comes to Berlin in 1929 in search of material for his novel, but on his first night there, New Year’s Eve, he finds his way to the Kit-Kat Club and meets its about-to-be-fired headliner, Sally Bowles, a British ingenue with more bravado than good sense or performing talent. Losing her bed and her lover with the job, Sally throws herself on Cliff’s mercy, and moves in to his rooming house, run by Fraulein Schneider, a middle-aged spinster of good character. Fraulein Schneider has a tentatively blossoming romance with fruit-seller Herr Schultz--but Herr Schultz is Jewish, and Schneider and Bradshaw’s good friend Ernst has just joined the rising Nazi party. Cliff (in a feat of prescience may be a little too good to be true) sees the writing on the wall and wants to get out of Germany, and take the pregnant Sally with him--but Sally has other plans.
All of this is framed and interwoven with the numbers from the Kit-Kat Club, some performed by Sally and the girls, some by the Emcee and the girls, which comment on both the main action and the shifting, darkening political situation. As the show goes on, those numbers, too, get darker, creepier, stranger: from the louche but lighthearted “Don’t Tell Mama” to the naughtier “Two Ladies” to the kick line of Kit-Kat girls that turns rapidly into a jackbooted goose-step.
As your pair of hosts--one the Emcee at the Kit-Kat club and the other the landlady of a genteel rooming house on the Nollendorfplatz--Alan Cumming and Linda Emond never put a foot wrong out. Cumming lurks in a corner, a window, the aisle, for almost every scene; his inquisitive, faintly mocking gaze always triangulating with the audience in watching the action. Yet he’s as trapped as anyone by the rising tide of Nazism about to sweep over Berlin. Emond has a tenderness that gives the romance between the doughty Fraulein Schneider and her shy suitor a genuine sweetness that goes hand-in-hand with its unsentimental practicality.
As Sally Bowles, Michelle Williams is touching, hitting all the vulnerable notes beneath the put-on airs of a showgirl, and displaying the mix of kittenishness, a cavalier attitude toward sex, and a fierce if unfocused will that gets Sally a headlining gig even if she isn’t all that strong as a dancer or singer. But her blithe exterior and Sally’s willed ignorance about the state of the world have a little too much heaviness in them sometimes, as if her very careful British accent is the only thing holding that facade together. Still, Williams’s aura of fragility brings a poignancy to Sally, a weariness that owes more to the physical exhaustion of constantly having to remake her life than the blase world-weariness she pretends to.
It’s hard, trying to hold together the shreds of a life in a world that’s spinning ever faster toward chaos. Cliff, with his well-off parents and a safe home in middle America to retreat to, may remain largely untouched by that chaos; he can afford to act on his conscience, turn down jobs offered by the Nazis, and skip out of town. For the natives, the down-on-their-luck, and the naive optimists--like Herr Schultz, who believes this, too, will pass--there aren’t so many choices: another way in which the play seems sadly relevant today. And while I might wish Marshall and Mendes had taken this opportunity to rethink, perhaps just a little, their ideas from fifteen years to see what would have the same brash effect today, I also can’t really quibble over how terrific this production was then, and remains now.