Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Cabaret That Chills More Than It Thrills

In 1966 when producer/director Harold Prince decided that he would turn the play I Am A Camera (based on Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin) into a musical he knew he would face special challenges.
This tale of late-1920s Berlin presaged the Nazi takeover of Germany and the Holocaust that followed, not to mention World War II itself. An era tinged with drugs, booze, sexual promiscuity, decadence and the first whiffs of one of the most brutal regimes the world has ever known did not easily lend itself to adaptation as a broadway musical.
But Prince was a daring visionary and he brought on board two young songwriters, John Kander and Fred Ebb to set the piece to music along with newcomer Joe Masterhoff to write the book.
Prince understood that the Golden Age of Broadway musicals pretty much ended with Rodgers and Hammerstein and that Broadway was still trying to discover exactly what came next. How far could he push the envelope in redefining a Broadway musical?
Cabaret was initially a dramatic play preceded by a prologue of songs describing the Berlin atmosphere from various points of view. As the composers began to distribute the songs between scenes, they realized the story could be told in the structure of a more traditional book musical, and they replaced some of the songs with tunes more relevant to the plot. Isherwood's original characters were changed as well.

The director's staging deliberately caught audience members off guard and was designed to unsettle them from the getgo. As the audience filled the theater, the curtain was already up, revealing a stage containing nothing but a large mirror reflecting the auditorium. There was no overture; instead, a drum roll and cymbal crash led into the opening number. The juxtaposition of dialogue scenes with songs used as exposition and separate cabaret numbers providing social commentary was a novel concept that succeeded in startling the audience. But as they gradually came to understand the difference between the two, they were able to accept the reasoning behind them.
Cabaret charted a bold new path for musicals.
And it went just far enough to capture hosannahs from the critics but not so far that it scared away audiences and box office revenue. The production ran for 1.165 performances, winning eight Tony Awards including best musical, original score, featured actor, featured actress and choreography. Of particular note was Joel Grey's definitive performance as the Master of Ceremonies of the Kit Kat Klub, a role he later repeated in the film version of the musical and in the 1987 Broadway revival of the show.
Then, in 1993 something big happened. 
Sam Mendes directed a new production of the show for the Donmar Warehouse in London's West End. It starred Jane Horrocks as Sally Bowles, Adam Godley as Cliff, Alan Cumming as the Emcee and Sara Kestelman as Frau Schneider.
This was a much darker, more sinister Cabaret.
The most significant change was the character of the Emcee.
Where Grey was impish and even somewhat charming as the Master of Ceremonies Cumming was more dominant (both in stature and presence) and more menacing.
The role, as played by Joel Grey in both prior incarnations, was a largely asexual, edgy character dressed in a tuxedo with rouged cheeks. Alan Cumming's portrayal was highly sexualized, as he wore suspenders (i.e. braces) around his crotch and red paint on his nipples. The cabaret number "Two Ladies" was staged with the Emcee, a cabaret girl, and a cabaret boy in drag and included a shadow play simulating various sexual positions. This more bisexual, explicit approach was all new.
The score was entirely re-orchestrated, using synthesizer effects and expanding the stage band, with all the instruments now being played by the cabaret girls and boys. The brutally satiric "Sitting Pretty", with its mocking references to deprivation, despair and hunger, was eliminated entirely, as it had been in the film version, and replaced with "Money". "I Don't Care Much", which was cut from the original production, was reinstated, and "Mein Herr" and "Maybe This Time", from the film adaptation, were added to the score.
Staging details differed as well; instead of "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" being performed by a male choir, the Emcee plays a recording of a boy soprano singing it. In the final scene, the Emcee removes his outer clothes to reveal a striped suit of the type worn by the internees in concentration camps; on it were pinned a yellow badge (identifying Jews) and a pink triangle (denoting homosexuals). Other changes included added references to Cliff's bisexuality and a brief scene where he kisses one of the Cabaret boys
Cumming loomed over the entire production as a sort of angel of death with a stark white face and raccoon-like eyes. He rarely left the stage and in the course of his performance he unveiled and/or flashed nearly every part of his anatomy.
This is the production that was brought to Broadway in 1993 and won a Tony as best revival of a musical while Cumming garnered a Tony for his performance.
And this is the production which is now back on Broadway with Cumming repeating his performance as he celebrates his 30th anniversary in the theater. This dark and deeply disturbing rendition of Cabaret is the production that we saw last week at Studio 54 (re-chritstened the Kit Kat Klub) and it is not something we will soon forget.
Cumming has totally redefined the role of the Master of Ceremonies. He clearly dominates the show and has committed to the role into March, 2015 when this current run will end. He's present in nearly every scene, sometimes just on the sidelines but always there.
As Sally Bowles, the Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams gives us a portrayal that is at once frighteningly hard-edged and destructively vulnerable. It's no small accomplishment. When she finally gets around to singing the title song she nearly spits out the words; it's pure defiance.
To complement the leads, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein and Bill Heck give us sensitive, three-dimensional performances that help to soften the blow of this relentlessly noir musical.
A full, 20-piece orchestra knocks out the numbers in Cabaret, pumping everything up while lithe and muscled bodies move about freely, even venturing into the audience. There's now a desperate eroticism to Cabaret which also includes fetishism and even suggestions of sadism and masochism. At its core it attempts to capture the nihilism of prewar Germany.
And while America may have seen the 1920s as giddy, breezy and refreshingly experimental, that was not the case in Germany. Oh no, there's no playfulness here -- and very little pliability, either. This is a broken, brittle atmosphere.
Yes, it was time for Cabaret to grow up and get real. This is, after all the 21st century and the events being depicted will be a century old before we know it. So, we've had plenty of time to reflect.
And that's precisely why we're not so sure the production really has to be quite as explicit as it is. Nor does it have to be quite so heavy-handed in terms of its redefined politically-correct message. 
Which is to say: You had us at "Wilkomen," Cabaret.
We get it.
We understand.
And when we leave the theater, we can still feel a chill even on the hottest day of the year.
In the end that's a testament to the fact that these are breathtaking performances in a remarkable piece of theater. And it's a blessing that the songs remain irrepressibly hummable, too. 
Originally published 9/7/14

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