Cabaret starring Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams – Review

By Daniel Berg on 6 June 2014
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Nearly half a century after its premiere, Cabaret has returned to Broadway under the direction of Sam Mendes and co-director and choreographer Rob Marshall.  Alan Cumming also returns in his critically acclaimed role as the Emcee, joined by Michelle Williams in her Broadway debut as sultry songstress Sally Bowles.

Cabaret, based on the works of English writer Christopher Isherwood, transforms the former Studio 54, now the Roundabout Theater, into the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy-sexy Weimar-era dance hall.  The usual theater seats are nowhere to be seen, replaced by small round cafe tables, each illuminated by a single red table light.  The sight of cocktail waitresses in garters, dashing back and forth among the tables filling orders of wine and absinthe and the full bar in the back, lends gravitas to the ambience, as does the glitzy-gloomy set design by Robert Brill.  As lights dim, it may be two in the afternoon outside on bustling 54th Street, but in 1930s Berlin, night is falling.

For those unfamiliar with the premise, Cabaret follows aspiring writer Cliff Bradshaw (Bill Heck) as he moves to the German capital on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power seeking inspiration for his next novel.  Here Cliff is introduced to the seamier side of the decadent city when he crosses paths with up-and-coming singer Sally Bowles  at the notorious Kit Kat Klub.

The always-brilliant Alan Cumming plays the ghoulish, hyper-sexualized Emcee, a role originated by Joel Grey.  Sporting heavy white facial powder and  thick eyeliner, Cumming’s leering grin is reminiscent of Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs, and he is every bit as spry and entertaining as he was in 1998, when he last tread the boards in this role.  In the opening number, “Willkommen,” Cumming, bobbing rakishly on the stage, invites us to leave our troubles outside, and enter a place where life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, and even the orchestra is beautiful

Throughout the show, Cumming, having established a winking rapport with the audience, is frequently rewarded with guffaws, titters and the occasional gasp.  After the intermission, the Emcee strides down into the audience and persuades a blushing college-age girl and a conservatively attired gentleman to join him for a little “audience participation” while waving enthusiastically to the “poor people” on the mezzanine who couldn’t manage to net seats closer to the orchestra.

Williams brings a refreshing vulnerability to the role of Sally Bowles, standing slightly over five feet in a frilly pink slip, she implores the audience to keep her indiscretions to themselves in “Don’t Tell Mama.”  The figure of Bowles will no doubt be familiar to fans of Liza Minelli, but in Williams’ interpretation Sally is initially a more debauched Lolita than a vampy coquette.

Perhaps it is that she seems frailer, smaller, and blonder than previous incarnations of that Toast of Mayfair, but Williams makes it work with an abundance of spunk and charm.  While her English accent may leave something to be desired, Ms. Williams comes into her own by the finale, and her frantic, wide-eyed rendition of “Cabaret” brings the house down.

Bill Heck makes for a somewhat wooden Bradshaw, but his All-American good looks and obvious chemistry with Williams compensate for any stiffness.

Linda Emond and Danny Burstein are outstanding as the ill-fated pair of aging lovers, Fraulein Schneider and the Jewish grocer Herr Schultz.  That the two are well matched is readily apparent in their first duet, “It Couldn’t Please Me More.”  Their budding romance provides a strong contrast to Cliff and Sally’s whirlwind affair, eliciting genuine pathos even as it is dashed to the rocks by the tides of history.

Unctuous Nazi Ernst Ludwig, here portrayed by Aaron Krohn, is the ominous symbol of swiftly changing times, as are the banal strains of the nationalist Lied “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” that slowly and subtly supplants and subverts the cheerful honky-tonk tunes of the Kit Kat Klub.

As the denizens of the Cabaret hurtle inevitably towards tragedy, they compensate by deeper immersion into dissolution.  The Emcee is a half-slurring wreck by the time he introduces Sally’s final number, she herself appears wan and harried, and the glamorous atmosphere of the Kit Kat Klub dissolves to a harsh white light as Cliff Bradshaw departs Berlin for the last time.

The others, alas, are not so lucky.  In the chilling denouement, stripes replace top hats and cravats, the chorus line begins to resemble a Selektion line, and a final lonely drum roll fades into deafening silence.

Yet silence does not reign for long, as the curtain closes on the Kit Kat Klub, the house erupts in lengthy, well-earned applause.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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