The New Cast

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
Choreographed and Co-Directed by Rob Marshall
Directed by Sam Mendes
Studio 54 /54th Street Between 8th Avenue and Broadway

Reviewed by David Spencer

It has actually been something of a challenge to report in a timely fashion on the state of replacements in the smash hit revival/reconception of "Cabaret"—no sooner did one important cast member enter than another left; attend a performance to catch the new "name value" Sally Bowles and find yourself watching the standby Linda Romoff—who does a very good job in the role indeed, but helps the critic’s task not at all (save for his ability to assure the reader that if Ms. Romoff is on that night, you’re still in good hands—consider it done, by the way).

But finally, with a new cast installed, I did well enough not to press my luck. This despite the fact that within days (by August 8th), the pleasantly bland Cliff of Boyd Gaines will be replaced by the yet-to-be assessed Cliff of Michael Hayden; and that the night I attended, the new Herr Schultz, Laurence Luckinbill, was out, and his standby, Scott Robertson, was on. I’ll talk about Robertson in a minute and I’ll try to augment this report with info on Hayden and Luckinbill in the near future. But for now…

The first and most important thing to note is that, production-wise, and in terms of its overall impact, "Cabaret" is still in terrific shape. Newcomers to the production will experience no letdown, nor have reason to think they’re not being taken care of as well as audiences who saw the production when it was newer. As for the individual human components…

There couldn’t be a more informative object lesson in casting and replacing than the current contrast between the new Sally Bowles and the new Emcee.

The new Sally is simply the best yet, Susan Egan. This pixie-pretty young woman is at least as good an actress as the role’s creator (for this production), Natasha Richardson; and as a musical theatre veteran, Egan’s musicality is miles beyond the sort of "let me act my way through it" choices that the musically raw Ms. Richardson’s hard wiring necessitated she make. Even more impressively, because Ms. Egan is so accomplished a vocalist, she has an easier time of the production’s unspoken conceit: that in real life, Sally isn’t much of a singer (else she wouldn’t be in this dive)—just an unusually charismatic lost soul. Egan has control over the conceit—she knows when it works to her advantage and she has the technique to unobtrusively release it when she needs to go for "the kill." The kind of Disneyesque wholesomeness of her face (she was Broadway’s first Belle, remember), mixed with her matching natural exuberance, makes Sally Bowles’ self-imposed exile in Nazi Germany even funnier, sadder and more heartbreaking than before. As if she embodies the ultimate corruption of girl-next-door innocence.

It pays to note here, too, how expansive the role is: because Sally is, perversely, innocent (naïve at least), as well as delightful, seductive and free-spirited, the character is open to many interpretations. I like Ms. Egan better than Ms. Richardson, but they couldn’t be more different from each other and each represents a perfectly valid way to go. Add standby Linda Romoff and the last Sally, Mary McCormack, to the list (I missed Jennifer Jason Leigh) and you have four distinct approaches. Include the road company’s Teri Hatcher and you have five—and counting…

The emcee is altogether different. It’s a very unforgiving role in many ways because it’s the virtual iconography of the show’s style. That’s why both Joel Grey, in the original Hal Prince production, and Alan Cumming, in this revival, left such indelible marks. And so much of that style absorbs the quirky persona of the original performer as the production takes shape that it’s impossible to own the role after that first performer is done with it. It took director Sam Mendes to re-conceive the role, and the play, before anyone could step out of Joel Grey’s shadow. (Check the British revival album starring Wayne Sleep sometime. His is a virtual [and lesser] echo of Joel Grey’s performance, and the liner notes themselves pause to acknowledge Grey.) And now Cumming has broken the mold: his snaky, pre-punk bisexual made his naughty revelry as unsettling as it was compelling. The interaction of role and performer was like that of any chemical composition: without the specific formula, it wouldn’t be as potent.

And so it is with Michael Hall. There are some external differences that you’d think would weigh in his favor: Whereas the sinewy Mr. Cumming gave the deceptive impression of emaciation, Mr. Hall is well-muscled, his gym membership fully apparent. And whereas Mr. Cumming was unnerving, Mr. Hall affects pop-eyed, pursed lip mischievousness, as if to say, "I can’t believe I’m doing all this stuff—and you know you love it." But it’s not enough to set him apart. Beyond those distinctions, Mr. Hall seems lost in the role, or the role doesn’t seem to have found him. With the exception of a few notable moments (the haunting "I Don’t Care Much" for one) he’s constantly losing the battle to the after-image left by his predecessor. It also doesn’t help that he palpably works harder to less effect. The briskly choreographed "The Money Song" leaves him out of sufficient breath to really put forth the patter lyrics (the sound designer might also reconfigure the mix for Mr. Hall’s specifications) and much of the choreography designed around Alan Cumming’s physicality seems a bad match for Mr. Hall (ideally that too should be tailored to a better fit).

It’s hard to be wholly objective about Mr. Hall, because, audience-wise, newcomers to the production take to him well enough (it’s prudent to remember that those of us who are veteran viewers are inured to the production’s shock value; whereas for novice viewers, it’s all a discovery). Or at least the applause acknowledges him warmly. But from my jaded perspective, he simply filled a vacant slot, as dutifully as he was able.

As Fraulein Schneider, Carole Shelley once again proves her mettle as one of the great old (well, middle aged) pros of the profession. As the owner and operator of the boarding house Cliff moves into, she knows how to make all the points land with elan and heart. (Personally, I do miss the unvarnished authenticity of Blair Brown, who had the role last and was a revelation—not only because that previously non-musical actress could sell it so well and so stylishly, but because, even in older middle age, she remains genuinely, obviously sexy: a color the role rarely has. But that is merely a personal preference and a Johnny-come-lately reminiscence of a bygone turn. Ms. Shelley, in her way, is–as nearly always–magnificent. May she live, and work, forever.)

The revelation of the evening, this time around for me, was her opposite number, Scott Robertson, standing by for Laurence Luckinbill, as Herr Schultz. Robertson is one of those ubiquitous players who always works, less because he is exceptional than because he is good-natured, reliable and professional…but with this role—and perhaps whatever maturity and richness added years add to a working actor’s life—he’s transcendent. As the lonely fruiterer who woos Fraulein Schneider, he brings a gentleness of spirit, and a soaring sweetness of voice to the role that breaks your heart even as it makes you smile. It may well be Scotty's finest hour, and those of you who catch him can count yourselves terribly lucky indeed.

As Fraulein Kost, the boarding house’s resident prostitute, Victoria Clark (late of "Titanic") made a more lasting impression on me than her predecessor, Michele Pawk. Wheras for me, Pawk merely filled the role well, in the manner of a leading woman (which she is) gone to seed (which she hasn’t), Ms. Clark—a character actress—brings her expert comic timing to bear, sharpening the point of view, and adding ache to the bitter emptiness of the character’s life.

Michael Stuhlbarg has replaced the inspired Denis O’Hare as Ernst Ludwig, the obsequious German smuggler who befriends Cliff. In a much milder way, Stulbarg seems in the same boat as Mr. Hall. Either through a lack of personal innovation or the insistence of the director, Stuhlbarg is very much following the O’Hare template. By comparison he suffers. But even on its own terms, the performance seems merely an approximation of something that should be better. Whereas Mr. Robertson, a standby, is stellar, Mr. Stuhlbarg, the regular, seems to be giving "the understudy performance." (That said, he seems an able fellow, and I don’t discount the possibility that he’ll grow more fully into the role, in time.)

All in all, then, there’s still good reason to come to the cabaret. Oh, and as for the new space, Studio 54: it differs from the Kit Kat Klub in that it is a little wider, and that the worn velvet wallpaper is gone, and that there’s no hallway with sticky rubber floors leading to the restrooms, which, along with the concession stands, can be found in a fairly spacious upper lobby.

Other than that, the ambience of decadence hasn't suffered much at all...

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