Cabaret is a musical that requires little introduction. Its initial production in the mid-60's, directed by Harold Prince, startled a mainstream Broadway audience awake from a surfeit of the tried-and-true. Bob Fosse re-imagined the Masteroff-Kander-Ebb collaboration less than ten years later in a film that redefined the limits of movie musicals. And in between and since these landmark events, the show has been revived with frequent success. Now, the highly acclaimed Sam Mendes production of Cabaret is in Toronto, following its New York success that demanded a transfer to a long-run venue.
In New York the performance is in a cabaret setting, the audience seated at tables and chairs. In Toronto, at the Princess of Wales Theatre, lip service has been paid to this device, maintaining a few tables at the edge of the stage and installing ramps that permit actors to enter and exit through the audience. But the impact is not the same. This doesn't diminish the skill of the production -- the entire company of actors, designers and technicians has created a first-class entertainment that, apart from this environmental issue, shows no wear-and-tear or on-the-cheap of the touring experience -- but it does remove the immediacy that gave Mendes' vision its signature. What we have is very slick, to be sure, but what we don't have is anything more provocative than far too many pelvic thrusts and the occasional passing reference to sexual dallying.
As I remember the original production, Prince presented the decaying world of 30's Berlin in overview. We met the principal characters -- Cliff, the American writer, Sally Bowles, the cabaret singer, Fraulein Schneider, the landlady and Herr Schultz, the fruit vendor. We also met Ernst Ludwig and Fraulein Kost, two secondary characters whose pro-Nazi sentiments were spoken and sung as the world of the play twisted into a shape that was meant to appall and to startle us. Framing the scenes was a number of cabaret set pieces, all of them led by the Emcee, an androgynous character originated by Joel Grey.
In the film adaptation, Fosse focussed his lens on Sally, as performed by Liza Minnelli, and the Emcee. The other characters were present, but he reintroduced new characters and themes from the original stories by Christopher Isherwood. The overview had been replaced by a more personal storytelling.
Mendes uses the Emcee to an even greater degree than Fosse did, inserting him in scenes and numbers wherever possible, and so we feel that the cabaret is a place we never leave. Sally is still a central principal, but her love interest, the writer, has been sacrificed so that he is all but absent. (Rick Holmes is entirely credible in the part, but a principal character in a musical is not helped when he has no moment to tell his own story. Even in the original script the character is not especially well developed, but he does have a song that allows us some insight that is not provided here.)
There is a feeling of today and a look altogether contemporary about this Cabaret that does set it apart from those of the past with which I'm familiar. The chorus boys and girls, for all their efforts at raunchy bump-and-grind, strike attitudes more in line with the world of music video or Vegas-style performing than they suggest the period of the play. And this is not a critical swipe at the performers. They are doing what they've been given, and they do it very well, but I would argue that the generic look and feel of the stage erodes the power and purpose of the story and its place in time and history. I don't think that body stroking and bum slapping, or even the shadow screen adventures in Two Ladies, is enough to distinguish the world as presented here from what we might see in soft porn come-on ads.
And still there are elements of this production that strike strong chords. Norbert Leo Butz is a strutting and preening Emcee who revels in his antics and his outrageousness. He plays the role and the audience with relish, his interactive dance bit following intermission shamelessly reminiscent of every nightclub routine that wins an audience by mocking it lightly. Alma Cuervo sings the role of the landlady with a warmth and intelligence that make the songs sound new-minted. Her grace and control suggest a woman from a different social class, but this is a performance to admire. Drew McVety, as Ernst Ludwig, provides edge and honesty to a role easily overlooked.
Joely Fisher is unaffected in her portrayal of the down-at-heel cabaret singer, Sally Bowles. She plays within the story and never tries to overwhelm the stage and its other characters. Unlike Minnelli in the film, whose own personality was at such odds with the doomed character she played, Fisher works hard to be honest and to reveal herself through the material alone. She has a pleasant singing voice and she is free from mannerisms or 'style' that define her. Her acting scenes, particularly in the second half, are true and unhurried. Neither are they cluttered with affectation or the gloss that too often adorns musical theatre's attempts at emotional honesty. But she is still battling a British accent she hasn't found and she lacks the force of personality that draws us to her.
In summary, then, we have a Cabaret that is very polished and very palatable. The show tries too hard to be shocking, itself a guarantee that audiences will cheer their own intelligence at 'getting' the point. And there is an uneasy sense that the world of the play, as told here and not drawn from the source material, is more about questionable taste than it is about an approaching cataclysm.
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