CABARET – A Review
*A humble review from a theatre-lover, not necessarily a theatre-reviewer.
CABARET – Roundabout Theatre Company – STUDIO 54
Cabaret first appeared on the Broadway stage in 1967 and solidified Joel Grey as a mega-star on Broadway and many remember the 1972 film version, again starring Grey and Liza Minelli. Several revivals (both in the West End and on Broadway), six in total, have been presented since then…and I must say it remains a musical I widely took for granted. The clicky and grungy Kander and Ebb tunes in the show have always served as resources for other avenues in my theatre walk. (Audition pieces, opening numbers, stand-alone offerings.) I was thrilled to finally see the show at Studio 54, with none other than Alan Cummings (who also won a Tony for the role, and who some say is the definitive Emcee) at the helm. Unfortunately we did not see Michelle Williams play Sally Bowles this evening, but let me say upfront, the understudy Andrea Goss was as bold as a shot of Gin, and as fragile as a mouse. She’s a headliner…not an understudy.
Allow me to set the stage…the atmosphere is intimate, and a grey stage with an extended thrust juts out surrounded by tiny dining tables. A swarm of small red lamps accompany the seating all the way to the back of the house. We see exposed fly rigging on one side…a lump of wooded chairs haphazardly (or maybe hastily) stacked in the side stage right…and above the stage hangs a giant, tarnished frame that leans to one side, like some awkward watch dog tilting it head, hearing something in the distance. All avenues are adorned with old-school marquee lights…some working, some broken. Actors, musicians (or are they riff-raff that wandered in from the alley?) mill around the room and stretch onstage…or warm up their instruments. I especially liked watching the efforts of one boy who gestured and beckoned to someone from the balcony…all efforts were thwarted, of course…but it was fun to watch him never give up, up to the start of the show.
And what a start. If you’ve never heard the opening number, “Wilkommen” then you are not, nor you should consider yourself to be a “theatre person.” It’s a staple of musical theatre and I was sitting theatre church, pew # 204 in Row EE, and it was the gospel according to the Emcee, Alan Cumming, a magician, whose simple thrusts and cozy jaunt is like watching a friend onstage. He’s so bloody comfortable and poised…always joking and winking, and hiding that mischievous smile that says “I’m the keeper of all things Dramatically Ironic!” He captains this vessel….and steers us, nose-first into a world that we’re uncomfortable with, but desperate to know more about. You feel naughty for laughing at parts, and even more interestingly, you find yourself relating to nearly every curiosity and devilish tactic our host present. The Emcee can been seen in nooks and crannies of the set at every turn, watching with us, the series unfold. His Scooby-Doo disguises as German soldiers and can-can girls are expected and noticeable, not quite the magic trick I think they were going for, but I don’t care. It makes him even more fun…and we listen to every single word he offers….why? Because he never abandons us. He’s our safe place. He’s so influential that if I met Cummings, after the show, on the street and he said “hey you…take this briefcase to Paris for me”….I would.
This story offers us Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer (and somewhat currently-blocked novelist) Cliff Bradshaw, as he checks into a Berlin boarding house and checks out Sally Bowles, “the toast of Mayfair” at a nearby and seedy Cabaret. This is a doomed relationship from the very beginning, but something about the hope and cigarette smoke that lingers in the air offers us an air of mystery, and I find myself magically encouraged to hang on, to see if the illusion of true commitment and formidable buried self-worth will even see the light of day. Through the intimate setting and the up-close dynamics of this gritty world, we see glimpses of the new dawn…the light….but at every turn, we’re kept lingering in the shadows, a voyeur, trapped behind a red, tasseled lamp shade, never able to offer any answers.
That’s the finesse of Cabaret and the reason why Studio 54 is the perfect place for this musical. It makes you part of the action by immersing you into the world. You can see their hearts…hear the clothing rustle…and smell the sweat. (And I was with the poor people in the Mezzanine.)
There is a sub-plot involving a wealthy and elderly Jewish fruit market owner Herr Schultz and the keeper of the rooms, German Fraulein Schneider. (Both Linda Emond and Danny Burstein….especially Burstein, were brilliant and nostalgic, like warm tea.) My wife made fun of me, because even during their romantic and “awww” worthy exchanges / duets, she noticed me checking out a player stage left, pulling the ropes of the never-practical fly rigging, bringing the mirror-ball and “romantic air” out of the scene at the end of the number. That’s what is so special about the show…the attention to detail. The crotch grabs and the nipple rubs are silly and stupid…but part of the moment….it’s the soft lighting that shows the ensemble member wiping their brow….or the strategic placement of Cliff in the audience during a scene that uncomfortably traps several audience members who now have to see things through his eyes…..it’s genius. They don’t even give you playbills at the beginning of the show. They don’t want people rustling through pages. (Which is actually compelling to see an audience HAVE to talk to each other during pre-show!)
I also need to speak on the orchestra…who we all know is also “beautiful!” They are…in sound and sight…and here’s the thing, I know that I’m going to catch grief for this…but it needs to be said. In my travels (and through my experience only) I need to ask musicians who desire to work in the theatre to take note…when a musician dons a character and tells a story through the accompaniment or underscoring…it uplifts the play. When you acknowledge them as characters, or part of the action of the scene….then they are characters. But, I would argue, that the two should ALWAYS be the same. (Whether they are shirtless on Broadway in the Kit Kat Club….or in the darkened orchestra pit, below a stage.) Often times in amateur theatre, the musical accompaniment is offered in a perfunctory way….rote playing what is on the sheet. There is rarely an attention to draw them into the play. And I’m not saying costume them up and put them onstage with the same burdens as the actors. Rather, require of them the same FINESE that the demands of the show require. Broadway employs professional musicians who LIVE and BREATHE their music….their stake is JUST AS REAL as the storytellers onstage. Cabaret was an impressive example of musicians fighting desperately to ensure the era, the desperation and the hope of these characters are absorbed at every turn. Bravo.
Few shows render me quiet. Cab rides are usually filled with endless gibber and / or gabber about how cool the set design was or how that one actor was handed a prop by another in a split-second and “did you see that!!” This show’s forward momentum, bleak but perfectly tempo’d second act…and final moment (which was both clever and shocking) forced me into silence. (Which was the goal, I think.) The management of still-relevant topics like self-worth, tolerance, inner beauty, expression mixed with a history lesson of the rise of the Nazi party as told through a fish-net, thigh-high stocking is the conflict of the show. You want to laugh AND cry….you want to feel sexy AND wronged….you want to let loose AND hide. It’s captivating.
I hear the show is extended through January of next year. Get out and see it, if you can. In this day and age of processed food and too-social social media…allow yourself passage to the Kit Kat Club, where “there are no troubles” and “life is beautiful.”