Book by Joe Masteroff; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb; Directed by Sam Mendes
Broadway, Musical Revival
Kit Kat Klub at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street
by Weston Clay on 4.24.14
Michelle Williams in Cabaret. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: A direct revival of the 1998 Broadway run that lacks freshness and originality.
Have you ever heard a cover of a song and thought to yourself, “this is really close to the original, except not as good, not as... genuine”? I often wonder: what is the point of covering a song if you’re not going to infuse it with something all your own, shed new light on its meaning, change the tone, look at it through a different lens, do something, anything to make it feel fresh? Roundabout Theatre Company’s current revival of Cabaret is like a cover that’s a little too close to its predecessor. In fact, it’s really a resurrection of the 1998 Broadway revival, right down to its director (Sam Mendes), co-director/choreographer (Rob Marshall), its entire design team, and its star Alan Cumming, who is reprising his legendary role as the Emcee.
Now, if you’ve spent the last ten years kicking yourself for missing that production, here’s your chance! From what I can tell (I never saw the 1998 revival, but there’s YouTube), it’s the same set (Robert Brill), the same costumes (William Ivey Long), the same choreography--the same show! If, however, you want to experience the raw energy of Broadway theatre, look elsewhere, as Cabaret feels like it’s dragging its decade-old boots; a show that should be sizzling with the energy of sex, drugs, and political turmoil feels, well, pretty tired.
Cumming knows what he’s doing--and he should, he’s been playing this same character in this same style on-and-off since 1993 (when this production first debuted in London)--but that’s also kind of the problem. His Emcee is noteworthy for its lasciviousness and its gayness. That’s all here, but watching him, the performance often felt “phoned in” as he relied on the same set of postures (hips left/hands up, hips right/hands to crotch, now arms crossed over head) and the same jokes (“ladies and...” then really suggestively, “gentlemen”) over and over and over again. You get the sense that Cumming could do this part in his sleep and that he often even checks out as he performs. Combine this with a rather uninspired chorus of “cabaret girls and boys,” who don’t appear so much as the haggard standards of a seedy club as a gaggle of recent NYU grads in a lot of ghastly make up, and the realm of the Kit Kat Klub just doesn’t have its necessary underworldly allure. "What good is sitting alone in your room?" we ask.
The cast isn’t without its gems. Linda Emond as Fräulein Schneider, the older woman who runs a boarding house of kooky characters, strikes a balance of gentleness and strength that makes her character the center of audience sympathy. Danny Burnstein as her boarder-turned-lover, Herr Schultz, is also rather good. And then there’s Michelle Williams, who’s making her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles. There’s been a lot of speculation in the theatre world about how this will go. She’s a three-time Academy Award nominee, but that’s for film, and just look to the last decade’s Hollywood musicals to see how badly casting famous movie stars in musicals can go. Sweeney Todd with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, both fine actors, is just the worst if you ask me.
Williams doesn’t totally wow here, but she certainly doesn’t flop. Like most people, it’s hard for me to watch someone play Sally Bowles without thinking of Liza Minnelli. Liza kind of ruined that role for anyone else by nailing it so hard in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film version and it’s a lot to live up to. While Williams’ Sally in some ways rings of Minnelli’s--particularly in that rounded-shoulder posture that somehow betrays through body language the desperation she would never show otherwise--she also makes Sally her own: blonde and cockney and a little less smooth than Liza’s.
Her musical performances? Hit or miss, I say. Her early numbers (“Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr”) bring life and momentum to the first few scenes as she sings and dances, not missing a step, with the chorus. “Maybe This Time” I found rather flat, but “Cabaret,” obviously a crucial moment, was outright chilling. The energy she brings to these moments is lacking in much of the rest of the show, however, and dreadfully lacking in the show's middle third or so.
As I sat at my “cabaret-style” table sipping my $3 souvenir cup of tap water (you have to buy the cup to have the water; I later learned from a kindly waiter that there’s one water fountain hidden near the front lobby restrooms), I couldn’t help but feel like what I was watching was a vanity project, timed right after Cummings’ acclaimed Broadway rebound with Macbeth, that was built to sell tickets and not to accomplish anything genuine or significant. It wasn’t lost on me that, just down the street, it was rumored that Neil Patrick Harris was reinventing Hedwig (also of 1998 fame) with enough electricity to revive Frankenstein’s monster. A longstanding commandment of Broadway is “give ‘em something new!” Hedwig can claim that, but Cabaret doesn’t even try.
(Cabaret plays at the Kit Kat Klub at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, through January 4, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays at 8PM; Wednesdays at 2PM and 8PM; Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 2PM. Tickets are $47-$162 and are available at roundabouttheatre.org or by calling 212.719.1300. More information at roundabouttheatre.org.)