Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Based on the play "I Am a Camera" by John Van Druten
and "Berlin Stories" by Christopher Isherwood
Directed by Sam Mendes
The Kit Kat Klub / 124 West 43rd Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

Well, the place couldn't be more sordid. It's the old Henry Miller on 43rd Street, one of those few that lie east of Broadway, and it has deteriorated with disuse. It's so run down that if you look up the word "dump" in the dictionary, you'll see its picture there. (Rim shot!) There's worn, often threadbare, imitation leopardskin carpet on the floors and stairs; the hallway walls are covered with shiny, embossed red wallpaper that was probably vogueish once, but decades later would make an Indian Row restaurant look subtle; and the hard rubber floors, when they're exposed--as they are in long, depressing corridors that lead to the rest rooms and smell prodigiously of cherry-scented urinal disinfectant--are sticky.

Of course it's perfect. Renamed The Kit-Kat Klub, for the central locale in the musical it houses, it symbolizes decadent pre-WWII Germany, as the Nazis are rising to power. And the musical is an extravagantly reconceived "Cabaret".

It pays to bear in mind that "Cabaret" is considered, for historical purposes, the first "concept" musical--that is, a musical favoring socio-political themes and ideas over linear narrative, in which staging concepts are inextricably woven into the matrix of what makes them work. Whereas a more traditional warhorse can resist radical (and at times abusive) reinterpretation because the storytelling is strong enough to protect it (witness the recent revivals of "Guys and Dolls", "How to Succeed", "Carousel", etc.), the concept musical is much more resistant. Since "concept" is at its very core, the superimposition of another concept often causes wrenching distortion.

But director Sam Mendes, basing his production on one he did in 1993 at the Donmar Warehouse in London, is the rare director who understands that a concept musical is open to reinterpretation provided you honor its philosophical core...the attitude, intent and purpose of the original creative team. To some degree their aesthetic sensibility too, as a jumping off point--but this is where the inspired and careful director lays his own cards on the table. (E.g. The original Harold Prince production of "A Little Night Music", though greatly admired, was generally regarded as a coolish affair; the best productions that followed in its wake emulated its high-elegant, arch comic tone. But in 1990, Gordon Davidson directed a Los Angeles production in which the sexual heat was palpable. He never got in the way of the material, but he gave it freer rein to express things heretofore only suggested. Mendes' "Cabaret" is much the same--albeit following a darker path.)

"Cabaret" is also unique among concept musicals in that, at the time of its inception, the mid sixties, and its 1966 premiere, the creative team--librettist Joe Masteroff, lyricist Fred Ebb, composer John Kander and, again, director Harold Prince--felt constrained by the era...mainstream musical theatre taste was still, in many ways, conservative, and by their own admission, they soft-pedaled and hedged in letting the show depict the sexual libertinism and anti-Semitism of Germany in 1929. And there was a modicum of traditional "musical comedy" material to leaven the broth additionally.

In 1972 the Bob Fosse film version liberated, somewhat, the nasty edge of the musical, but its screenplay, by Jay Presson Allen, was a dramatic departure from the stage libretto, and Fosse "cheated" a little by filming a non-musical story peppered with source music numbers to comment on the action. Virtually all the "book numbers" were dropped in favor of realism and cinematic verisimilitude.

Still, the film's influence was felt in 1987 when Hal Prince remounted the show as a star vehicle for Joel Grey (recreating the Master of Ceremonies role he had played on Broadway and in the film). The restaging incorporated several of the film's new numbers, omitted the "cutesy" numbers ("Meeskite", "The Telephone Song") and gently informed us that our formerly straight-as-an-arrow hero was capable of bisexuality on occasion. (The hero, incidentally was modeled on the famously gay Christopher Isherwood, whose "Berlin Stories" inspired John van Druten's straight play "I Am a Camera" which was, in turn, the source for "Cabaret".) But since Prince was not, after all, abandoning his vision to Fosse's--nor could he be expected to--the show left a less memorable impression than it had at first, having one foot in its newfound candor and another in the 1967 template, neither one thing or the other with full force.

It is only now, with the (sometimes regrettable) anything-goes tolerance of this pre-millennium decade that Sam Mendes and the authors have taken the musical to the next, and possibly ultimate, level of its journey. While one can't and shouldn't minimize the debt he owes to the groundwork laid by Prince and Fosse, his vision of the musical is distinctively his own and bracingly uncompromising.

As I indicated in the beginning, there's a sense in which we never leave the Kit Kat Klub once we enter it. The environmental setting has us seated at little cabaret tables, waitresses taking drink orders...and no Playbills to thumb through until the end. The illusion is assiduously pristine--and, like the threat of oncoming Nazism that looms throughout the evening, constant and uninterrupted. Even when the houselights dim (along with the little lamp on your table; everything is wired into the main board) and the show begins, we are never allowed to forget the club. Where previously the Kit Kat numbers were editorial comments that intruded upon the main action, here the book scenes intrude upon the Klub. The main stage is a square thrust space, the run-down back wall displaying three doors...which are used alternately as literal exits to the backstage area, and portals in various German locales--such as a dressing room, or a hallway in a boarding house. The scenes are set with available props--a row of nightclub chairs, for example, becoming a compartment on a train. The orchestra is on a platform above. On either side of the stage, spiral staircases lead to a series of catwalks, from which ominous observers can perch...and watch...

They watch the still-intact story of Cliff Bradshaw, a young American writer who has come to Berlin seeking inspiration for a novel. But this Cliff is not the reassuring straight male matinee idol of old (Bert Convy, John Cunningham, Larry Kert, Gregg Edelman on Broadway, Gene Rupert on the road); now he is the wry, ironic, sexually ambivalent John Benjamin Hickey, who swings both ways with a shameless ease that even he seems to find surprising. Likewise, the initially agreeable smuggler, Ernst, who becomes his first English student--and later his first up-close Nazi--is not the hale and muscular Aryan once personified by Burt Reynolds lookalike Edward Winter...he is now frail, furtive, also bisexual and played by "Lonely Planet"'s Denis O'Hare. (Further blurring the distinction between the Klub and the story's reality: Mr. O'Hare doubles as the band's first chair clarinetist.) And the young expatriate British chanteuse who barges into Cliff's life, becoming his roommate and lover--the irrepressible Sally Bowles--is not the solid showbiz pro personified by Liza Minelli's film turn. She is a tune carrying wannabe, here played by Natasha Richardson. The intended paradox is that while Ms. Richardson is a gifted and charismatic actress, she has no seasoning at all as a musical theatre performer, her style raw and unvarnished; the very absence of ability lending authenticity to the point: that Sally's gift for survival lies in her audacity--she was never that much of an entertainer. (A listen to Jill Haworth's performance on the surprisingly crude-sounding Original Cast Album of 1966 indicates that this was the original concept as well; but the creative team eventually backed off the conceit, when Ms. Haworth was replaced with a young, perky and polished Anita Gillette.)

There are no earth-shattering differences in the older couple: Fraulein Schneider, who rents Cliff his room; and the Jewish fruit merchant who is her suitor, Herr Schultz...except perhaps a difference in temperament. In the original, the roles were assayed by Lotte Lenya and Jack Gilford; she having escaped Nazi Germany with her husband Kurt Weill (from whose music John Kander was openly beholden for inspiration); he representing a Yiddish Theatre authenticity. At the Kit Kat Klub, the pros are just as seasoned, but the emphasis is on kitchen sink realism. And for that, Mary Louise Wilson and, in his musical debut, Ron Rifkin (who is, of all things, a tenor, with a surprisingly adorable voice) can hardly be bettered.

Perhaps the most striking--and unsettling--casting choice is represented by Alan Cumming as the Master of Ceremonies, if only because that role would seem to have been intractably defined by Joel Grey's sinister clown in whiteface. As most of you know, the emcee has traditionally been played as an insidious, malevolent pixie--a lower demon, if you will, with a Chaplinesque shuffle and a vaudevillian's panache.

Tall, sallow Cumming offers no such arch subtleties, nor is he a showbiz smoothie. Like Sally's, his is a low-rent talent, characterized by rampant, gleeful vulgarity. He sheds his tuxedo early and spends much of his time bare from the waist up, pale, emaciated, sporting criss-crossed white suspender strips pasted to his torso along with a bowtie. The zipper of his pants stays always an inch or so unzipped, so that a rising thatch of pubic hair from his crotch can be displayed. He encourages a celebration of moral depravity with the clear suggestion that any perversion can be enjoyable. (During the mischievous "Three Ladies" number, he, a chorus boy in drag, and one of the Klub girls, disappear behind a screen to give us silhouettes of cunnilingus, fellatio and violent fistfucking--along with the "usual" threefold couplings.) I don't mean to put down Mr. Grey's emcee, nor to suggest that one is better than the other...but there was, even at its most nightmarish, something reassuring about the traditional emcee. Because he was such a polished showman, we embraced the entertainment value of his easy cynicism; it was the-man-you-love-to-hate territory, and we always (secretly) understood that he was our conduit to the authors' moral center, albeit an ironic one. With Cumming's emcee there's no such reassurance. He invites discomfort...and seems not to give a shit what you think. Which is even more unsettling. Oh, he makes you laugh, too...but boy do you feel skeevy for getting the jokes...and there could not be a more effective metaphor for--as a lyric calls it--the gathering storm.

Everywhere you look in this "Cabaret", there's another small touch underscoring the bleakness about to descend: a unison dance step performed lackadaisically, a casually worn armband...or my "favorite": a chorus girl with bruises. She's given no special emphasis, the staging never draws attention to her, but eventually, the alert eye will drift her way...and the alert mind will think, my God, she's being abused...and pray that it's a production detail, not a glimpse of real life that just happens to coincide.

Never has "Cabaret" been closer to its ideal than at the Kit Kat Club, never more effective as a warning, and never more relentlessly theatrical. Quite simply an unprecedented event, this...and were I you, I would not miss it for the world.

Oh, and one more note about the theatre. If you pay close attention, you realize that they have, in fact, sanitized and cleaned it, revamped the plumbing, installed new pay phones, and kitted it out with technical facilities that would be the envy of any Broadway house. But rest assured...they haven't otherwise ruined it...

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