Fifty years since Cabaret debuted on Broadway and almost as long since the 1972 film adaptation emblazoned its haunting imagery and seductive score across our collective consciousness, the jaunty tour through the seedy underbelly of Weimar-era Berlin feels somewhat timeworn—although still provocative and fun for true fans or first-timers—until the show’s later numbers reveal where the Emcee has been leading us all along.
From the iconic opening drum roll and cymbal crash introducing us to our wily master of ceremonies, to the inevitable, horrific finale, the power of the “story behind the story” of Cabaret—its stark illustration of civilization sliding into atrocity while the human party rages on—retains its timeless resonance.
The Roundabout Theatre Company’s brassy production of Cabaret now at the Kennedy Center is a touring version of a staging ultimately derived from a 1993 reimagining of the classic Kander-Ebb material by Sam Mendes for London’s Donmar Warehouse and later enhanced into a six-year Broadway run co-directed by Mendes and choreographer Rob Marshall.
The ingenious mix of libidinous cabaret numbers overseen by the charismatic Mephistophelean Emcee (Jon Peterson) and tragic historical reflection set in pre-Nazi Germany covers up the weak foreplot concerning drab American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley) and his unconvincing affair with British club singer Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin), headliner at the Kit Kat Klub.
The story begins with Bradshaw’s arrival in Berlin and chance meeting with Ernst Ludwig (Patrick Vaill), a man with sinister plans, we later learn, who directs the American to the boardinghouse of Fräulein Schneider (Mary Gordon Murray) and also to the Kit Kat, a celebration of carnal worship where Bradshaw’s sexual tendency to men is revealed.
The dull relationship between Bradshaw and Bowles plays out, as does a delightful, tender romance between Schneider and one of her lodgers, Herr Schultz (Scott Robertson), a widowed Jewish fruit vendor, as events take on more explicit anti-Semitic overtones heralding the rise of the Nazi party. The cabaret girls’ kick-line becomes a goose step, the first bricks are hurled and the future becomes inescapable.
As far as performances go, the success of Cabaret rests largely on the shoulders of Peterson as the Emcee. It’s impossible not to think of Joel Grey, the snappy originator of the role, or Alan Cumming, perfectly cast to sex up Roundabout’s original jack-booted revival. Those are some heavyweight suspenders to fill, but happily, Peterson pulls it off, stamping his performance with a bruised humor and a bit of purple melancholy.
As the mad conductor of an anything-goes-bash before mechanized horror eats up much of the world, Peterson’s Emcee pitches and prods, jokes and bumps along as song-and-dance man with the doomed cabaret dancers, the pet-named Kit Kat Girls and Boys.
closes August 6, 2017
Details and tickets
He takes center stage for some of the show’s most memorable—and hummable—numbers, including one of the most spot-on tone-setter openings in musical theater, “Willkommen,” and crafty vignettes such as “Two Ladies” and “Money.” He also deftly handles the show’s most disquieting routine, “If You Could See Her,” in which the Emcee asks us to be more tolerant when judging his girlfriend—a gorilla in a pink smock. It’s a brilliant, if controversial bit of Brechtian dash—especially with the original production’s mirror backdrop framing the audience’s reaction—which I’m glad was retained through the various revivals.
Both Sally and Clifford are unfortunately underwritten characters and the performances of the actors suffer for it. Larkin plays Sally as the dizzy, slightly desperate good-time-girl, but what Liza Minnelli could convey playing Sally in the film version Larkin cannot, and the character comes off uninteresting. But she can sing. She registers on fun ditties like “Don’t Tell Mama,” and “Mein Herr,” early on, but stuns in the climactic title song “Cabaret,” which has been refitted from the Liza-era anthem celebrating the self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking lifestyle into a prophetic requiem that ironically magnify the lyrics.
Larkin belts out the showstopper spotlit on an empty stage, white-knuckled and staring dead-eyed at the future found at Auschwitz and Birkenau as she gives voice to the decision to ignore the tidal wave blotting out the horizon with the mantra “life is a cabaret, old chum, life is a cabaret.”
Unfortunately, Eakeley as Clifford doesn’t have the songs to make up for his milquetoast everyman character. He’s meant to be the camera through which the audience can relate to the rollicking goings on, but like Lucifer in Paradise Lost, the Emcee, whose star burns much brighter, greedily usurps this office.
Both Murray and Robertson warm the proceedings in performance and song, as the older pair of lovers in the story, in a subplot which can sometimes be drowned out by all of the sturm und drang of the Kit Kat. Murray especially has an expressive and powerful voice, which shines in “So What” and “What Would You Do?”
Much has been written about the decision by Mendes and Marshall to recraft the show’s choreography away from the signature Fosse razzle-dazzle of the film into something more lethargic.
I wouldn’t completely concur with Nelson Pressley’s dig that “Their dead-eyed dances of thigh-burning squats and naughty hip rolls are zombie burlesques, all body and no soul,” but it does paint a fair picture.
The Kit Kat Girls and Boys do provide the requisite set dressing, louchely draped about the two-tier iron staircase and catwalk set by Robert Brill, and impressively double as musicians in the orchestra, sharply conducted by Robert Cookman. In what’s become customary for stagings of Cabaret, the orchestra and the Emcee will crowd in and dangle their legs from a large, skewed picture frame, resting at an angle over the set, which flashes marquee lights at the appropriate times. Costumed in the show’s kitschy black leather and torn fishnet stockings, the musicians notably enliven the audience at the opening of Act 2 (“Entr’Acte”) following intermission.
But does Cabaret have legs, after all this time? I thought so going in. In fact, I tend to name it as one of my favorite musicals. But the nagging thought that I was bored kept intruding while watching the show. The numbers haven’t grown any less fun really, it’s just that I’ve seen it too many times, I realized. I was also more cognizant of the show’s flaws, chiefly the book scenes between Sally and Clifford.
But while the experience has fatigued, the concept and the message of Cabaret—hinted at and foreshadowed throughout the plot, and expressed as a metaphor in the Kit Kat scenes and through the veiled warnings of the Emcee—is still attention-grabbing. By the time the cast goes into a reprisal of “Willkommen” against a searing expression of the Holocaust, the point is irrepressibly driven home.
Cabaret. Book by Joe Masteroff, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. Orchestrations by Michael Gibson. Music supervision and vocal arrangements by Patrick Vaccariello. Directed by BT McNicholl. Music direction by Robert Cookman. Associate choreographer and choreography recreated by Cynthia Onrubia. Featuring Jon Peterson, Leigh Ann Larkin, Benjamin Eakeley, Alison Ewing, Mary Gordon Murray, Scott Robertson, Patrick Vaill. Set design by Robert Brill. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari. Sound design by Keith Caggiano. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Stage manager: John M. Atherlay. Produced by Roundabout Theatre Company. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.