By: David Sheward
During "Wilkommen," the opening number of Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of its 1998 revival of Cabaret at Studio 54, Alan Cumming as the lascivious Emcee points to one of the sluttish chorus girls and tells the audience they danced together in the show in "the last century." This reference to Cumming’s appearance in the previous production gets a laugh, but it yanks us out of the show’s setting, a sleazy nightclub in pre-Hitler Berlin, and into the realm of commerce and showbiz. Instead being drawn into the world of the show, we’re celebrating Cumming’s ascension to American stardom and the status of this return engagement as a cash cow for Roundabout.
It takes awhile, but we’re gradually pulled back into a Germany on a giddy, amoral spree just before the thugs take over. The 1998 staging by Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes rethought Harold Prince’s 1966 original, which slowly seduced us into loving the fun and grime of the Kit Kat Klub, a microcosm for the country, and then bringing us up short with Nazi imagery. Marshall and Mendes brought the Third Reich front and center and made us confront it while enjoying the raucousness of the cabaret. This remounting is essentially that same show, which ran for almost six years.
Cumming is as deliciously decadent as ever, but there’s a bit too much of the celebrity winking at the audience here. We can see the actor peeking at us underneath the makeup of white foundation and heavy eye shadow. Michelle Williams makes a delightfully gamine but ultimately narcissistic Sally Bowles. She received a slamming bya a majority of the press for a weak interpretation and less than stellar musical skills. Perhaps she settled into the role by the time I saw it, but she captures Sally’s glittering attraction and insecurity. Also, her lack of song-and-dance polish works for the character, who is supposed to be a rank amateur, unlike Liza Minnelli whose performance in the film version was bafflingly razzle-dazzle. Why would this star be stuck in such a rinky-dink dive? Williams’s Sally belongs there.
The supporting performances add depth as well. Linda Emond’s Fräulein Schneider is a sage and weary survivor. Her "What Would You Do?" becomes a Brechtian accusation, as her character rationalizes her choice to abandon a marriage to the Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz (an equally sensitive Danny Burstein). She seems to be directly asking the audience if it could possibly follow another path? Gayle Rankin transforms the usually throwaway role of prostitute Fräulein Kost, from a punch line to a complex woman desperately eking out a living with the only means she has. Bill Heck does much with the thankless role of Cliff Bradshaw, the American writer at the center of the narrative. His is the least flashy role; this version eliminates his solo number "Why Should I Wake Up?" but adds the character’s bisexuality, inspired by the original Christopher Isherwood stories, and Heck gives full force to the inherent conflict.
So, yes, this production inspires déjà vu, but there’s enough new blood to make this Cabaret a "wilkommen" choice.
April 24-Jan. 4, 2015. Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54. 254 W. 54th St., NYC. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 and a half hours, including intermission. $47-162. (212) 719-1300. www.roundabouttheatre.org P
Photos: Joan Marcus