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Cynicism has always informed the musical “Cabaret” but it’s all in its commercial and artistic glory in the transfer to Broadway of London’s “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club”. The August Wilson theater - opened in 1925 and typical of Broadway houses of the period - has been transformed - at the cost reputedly of $25 million - into an expansive night club - aping theoretically the kind that populated Berlin in the 1930s - that affords all kinds of immersive and expensive experiences.

The producers have encouraged ticket holders to arrive an hour early to experience the “pre-show”. One enters the side alley - with refuse piled along the walls - along a labyrinthian path in what was backstage; background music is a deep-base, disco beat (unknown in the Weimar Republic, but no matter.) Along the way one is offered a shot of some unappealing, weak, cherry-flavored liquor. Arriving in the lower-level lobby, in case one’s “free drink” isn’t enough, there is a huge full bar serving all kinds of exotic drinks at prices even high by New York City standards. On a staged platform is a company of nine “prologue” dancers and musicians, mixing among the ticketholders and entertaining with bizarrely exotic dance and song; It all smacks of a midway carnival or circus side-show; why not sword-swallowers, bearded ladies and belly-dancers?

The proscenium stage inside the August Wilson is gone, replaced with a theatre-in-the round renovation. A round stage, which elevates in three-tiers, a la a wedding cake, sits where the front orchestra and stage was; ramped seating and balcony extends to the back wall of what was the stage. Encircling the new stage are dozens of nightclub tabletops (with telephones, just like in the movie version) where ticket holders can dine pre-show for $600, A bottle of champagne comes with each table, but audience members in any seat can order drinks through the performance

“Cabaret” won seven Olivier Awards (the London equivalent of New Yorks’ Tony Awards) in 2022, including best musical revival, best director for Rebecca Frecknall, and best actor for Eddie Redmayne. In New York, the show won one Tony for Tom Scutt for Best Scenic Design; Scutt also redesigned the theater and designed costumes. The whole scene is extravagant, but the concentric staging gets tiresome; more imaginative use of seating and stage was achieved in both “Moulin Rouge” and the “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”.

Redmayne reprises his London role as Emcee; his interpretation of the part (made iconic by Joel Gray in the 1966 original production and in the 1972 movie version) redefines what’s come before - most famously by Gray and, in revivals, Alan Cummings. Redmayne’s Emcee inhabits the stage like a spindly cockroach in a remarkably creepy performance, amazingly physical and intricately choreographed both.

But the play’s the thing; here, the original book by Joe Mastersoff gets burdened by the lavish grotesqueries of the production and the busyness of the musical numbers; the book scenes move slowly, some seem interminable. What’s more, the show self-inflicts dramatic contradictions. The Emcee invites us - as does the expansive and expensive nature of the production - to leave our troubles outside and revel in cabaret “where everything is beautiful”. But with Frecknall’s thematic emphasis, Masteroff’s tales of lives upended by the rise of Nazism - based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1930s Berlin stories and the 1952 play by John van Druten - the comparison to authoritarianism advancing in the United States and around the world is unavoidable.

The score by the inimitable team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Webb, played by a 10-piece band perched above the stage where boxes once were, is as rich as ever. The 20 musical numbers (2 reprised) include “Mein Heir” and “Maybe This Time” written for Liza Minelli for the movie version. Speaking of Sally Bowles - the second-rate nightclub performer whose illusions of future fame and fortune are thwarted by her own failures and the impending tragedy of the times - here the role is played by Gayle Rankin. She tries to play the role more neurotically than it’s written, but nothing can prepare us for her bizarre interpretation of the title song, replete with screaming and crying. If it’s supposed to be a nervous breakdown or psychotic episode, it doesn’t work.

The performance by a miscast Ato Blankson-Wood (last seen on Broadway in the drama “Slave Play”) as Clifford Bradshaw - the young American novelist who gets involved with Sally and is witness to social and political upheaval - doesn’t work either. His Clifford is more explicitly gay than ones before - which is fine - but his relationship requires some genuine affection or simpatico with Sally, and there is none evident here.

The two players one cares about are Fraulein Schneider, Sally and Clifford’s landlady, and Herr Schultz, her fruit-vendor, Jewish suitor, played by Broadway veterans Bebe Neuwirth and Steven Skybell. Their duet, “It Couldn’t Please Me More”, known as “the Pineapple song” is one of the most charming in the Kander/Ebb canon. Challenged with an engagement to marry the Jewish Shultz by the rise of the Nazis, Neuwirth's “What Would You Do?” is especially heartbreaking (although Neuwirth doesn’t need to be elevated to the top tier of the rising stage for her voice to reach crescendo.)

For all of the show’s lavishness, the two most effective numbers theatrically are the most simply staged - a reprise of “Married” and the companion “If You Could See Her”, also known as the Guerilla song. Staged as allegory to Kristallnacht, “Married”, performed by the Emcee as a ghoulish clown, presents Jewish Schultz as silent witness to the desecration of the Hebrew wedding ceremony. In the guerilla song which follows, the anti-Semitism reaches a chilling low.

Julia Cheng’s choreography - a stream of gyrations, pelvic thrusts, and other lascivious movements (which occasionally employs props like dildos and whips) initially seems inventive but gets tiresome. The debauchery and abject hedonism of this “Cabaret” and the commercial imperatives of its extravagant design in the end trivialize “Cabaret’s” warning of encroaching Fascism. As Bertolt Brecht concludes in “The Rise and Fall of Arturo Ui” - “For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

This review was written for “Blickpunkt Musical” the German magazine on international musical theater for which Mr. Dwyer is U.S. reviewer.


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