You are currently viewing “Cabaret” reviewed

“Cabaret” reviewed

Rebecca Frecknall’s new revival of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Joe Masteroff after the play by John Van Druten) takes Sam Mendes’ 1998 stage vision and amplifies the seediness of it all. The new production, which just opened at the August Wilson Theatre, following a multi-Olivier-awarded ongoing West End run, is certainly an experience. Designer Tom Scutt has reconfigured the August Wilson Theatre, at evident expense, into a multi-level environmental experience for the audience, which is invited to arrive before curtain time for drinks and entertainment by musicians and dancers; and the main auditorium has been impressively converted from a traditional proscenium stage to an in-the-round arrangement, with audiences seated close to a central circular playing space.

As an event, this dark and dirty Cabaret succeeds (though it’s worth saying that I waited twenty minutes in a crowded line and neither of two bars had the drink I selected from the menu and three separate ushers directed us in the entire wrong direction to get to our seats). Additionally, while structured in the round, Frecknall has blocked her audience to play toward the side where the mezzanine remains, which mains nearly half an audience will be staring at actors’ backs during the most crucial moments.

The parts that work the best remain the parts that resist fussing with – the book itself. Young Philadelphian Clifford Bradshaw (Ato Blankson-Wood) arrives in Weimar-era Berlin and takes a room with the weary Fraulein Schneider (Bebe Neuwirth) before making his way to the Kit Kat Club, a seedy nightspot presided over by a sinister Emcee (Eddie Redmayne). He meets English chanteuse Sally Bowles (Gayle Rankin), and it’s just her luck, because the club owner (Loren Lester) with whom she has been shacking up has fired her and sent her packing. She invites herself to live with Cliff and he lets her, with little fight.

Neuwirth and Steven Skybell as Herr Schultz nearly steal the show as the older couple who joyously find love late in their lives, with Schultz gifting her with pieces of fruit as if they were precious gems, only to tragically lose it in the face of the growing Nazi menace. The Schneider-Shultz romance is sweet and sad; neither character is called upon to shriek. And Rankin excels in Sally’s scenes with Cliff, her wry, frank and hopeful personality back in place. The songs that emerge from the boardinghouse dramas are not ransacked as psychiatric case studies but are rather given room to let comment proceed naturally from real entertainment. Rankin’s “Maybe This Time,” with no slathered-on histrionics, is riveting.

Redmayne, however, is too much – in every way. First, Frecknall has added him into even more of the show than usual, and more is less. The Emcee should be inscrutable and insidious. Here, we eventually grow to tire of him. Furthermore, Redmayne is not a trained singer, and his phorangal tone softens the sharp Kander-Ebb lyrics. He’s often made to look and sound like a clown rather than suggesting the terror that exists behind the curtain.

This Cabaret how now pushed things too far – it’s time to bring it back from the brink.