By Erin Fleming
As part of its 50th Anniversary Season, New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company’s groundbreaking revival of Cabaret, a stunningly disturbing night of incredible theater, opens Broadway in Chicago’s newly named The PrivateBank Theatre (formerly Bank of America and The Schubert) through February 21.
Direct from Broadway, this production, directed by B.T. McNicholl, is inspired by the critically acclaimed and award-winning 1993 London production directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty). That London production’s transfer to New York was co-directed and choreographed by Mendes and Rob Marshall (Into the Woods and Chicago, the films) winning the 1998 Tony for Best Revival. Mendes’ and Marshalls’s vision is a stark, stripped down vision of the world of the Kit Kat club and its famous denizens.
There’s gotta be something special about a story that keeps coming back and a show that continues to fascinate. This production is technically a remount of a revival of a re-imagining of a musical based upon a play that was inspired by a book.
Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories chronicle the author’s experiences living in Berlin during the end of the Weimar Republic, a licentious, liberal, cosmopolitan world that was flourishing in decadence and detachment at the same historical moment that Germany was being taken over by Adolph Hitler’s ultra-conservative regime. The Berlin Stories was adapted into the play I Am A Camera, the title taken from an early line in one of Isherwood’s short stories, “Goodbye to Berlin”: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
The story, play and musical feature the infamous Sally Bowles (based on real life struggling actress and prototypical manic pixie dream girl Jean Ross), the complicated and mysterious club singer who enchants a young English writer and entangles him into her enigmatic world.
Director/Choreographer Bob Fosse’s 1972 film version starring Liza Minnelli and Michael York won just about every Oscar aside from Best Picture (beat out by The Godfather) and has its own well-deserved following. Fans of the film might be a bit confused by the differing subplots and supporting characters in the stage version, but they’ll recognize the club scenes and some of the greatest Kander and Ebb tunes of all time: “Mein Herr,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Willkommen,” “Maybe This Time,” “Money,” “Married” and of course the titular “Cabaret.”
This production’s audience is gradually introduced into the world of the Kit Kat Club a few minutes before “curtain” as the dancers and musicians stroll on stage, warming up in character. At lights up, Randy Harrison‘s white-faced, jack-booted Emcee beckons everyone inside with a finger gesture that borders on the obscene. And as the night progresses, that border is systematically and repeatedly crossed.
Most of the girls and boys of the club are quadruple threats: they act, sing, dance and play in the orchestra. Under Robert Cookman‘s music direction, the club songs are sultry and dripping with suggestion; the character songs are full of sweet, doomed romance and dashed dreams.
A few stand out in this excellent ensemble. Harrison is phenomenal as the saucy, sarcastic Emcee, the audience’s ever-present guide through the underworld, taunting and provoking out of complacency.
Andrea Goss delivers a frantic and desperate Sally Bowles, whose fantasies and half-truths about herself and her world become more and more pathetic as reality encroaches. In her final song she is a Tim Burton-esque waif: gaunt, emaciated, strung out, but singing what’s left of her heart out. Shannon Cochran is endearing as the wise and world-weary Fraulein Schneider, bringing some very needed comic relief, especially in her scenes with the wonderful Mark Nelson (Herr Schultz, the Jewish fruit seller) and Alison Ewing, who is outstanding as Fraulein Kost.
Inside, the Emcee promises, everyone and everything is beautiful, but it is a raunchy, gritty, sleazy beauty, threatening to come apart at any second with a firm tug on a stray thread. Robert Brill‘s set, Peggy Eisenhauser‘s lighting and William Ivey Long‘s costume design conspire to present a debauched but decaying Berlin. Long described his process appropriately as one of “deconstruction:” “I began by dressing the actors in full costume, and then I eliminated one piece of clothing at a time, photographing each look as we went along. I then put all the photographs on a board, and the director and I chose how dressed (or undressed) each character should be.”
It’s an apt metaphor for a show that reveals the sinister underside to Berlin, “inch by inch, step by step, mile by mile, man by man” in every way, the city unraveling in despair and violence.
Regarding his original choreography, Marshall commented, “It’s like choreographing everything twice. I’d say to myself, ‘No, fray it purposefully with people on the wrong foot or out of step.’ Cynthia Onrubia continues that idea in her explicit and erotic choreography that is reminiscent of Michael Jackson‘s “Thriller” at times: bodies moving like zombies or (barely) animated corpses. The suggestion perhaps that the cabaret and its indulgences distract us momentarily from the harsh realities outside, but there is something deeper inside us keeping us asleep: a very powerful form of denial.
That denial is heartbreakingly articulated by Herr Schultz, whose fiance calls off the wedding out of fear for the rising power of the Nazis. Schultz’s insistence that it will pass, and that he knows the heart of the German people—“after all, I am German,” is chilling.
So what keeps this story coming back? According to Mendes, Cabaret is really about “the central mystery of the twentieth century—how Hitler could have happened. And it’s important that we go on asking the question whether or not we can find some sort of answer.”
Of course, Chicago audiences leaving this 2016 revival will only be asking themselves that question rhetorically. How relevant could these questions be to those living in the greatest democratic republic of all time, where difference and diversity are celebrated as a national value. Maybe it could happen in other countries, places where a charismatic demagogue might openly challenge the citizenship of a sitting president, perhaps. Places where public figures and elected officials malign entire groups of people based upon their nationality, their heritage, their religion, their race, their orientation. Certainly not here. It’s not like anyone in America is suggesting building a wall to keep out the bad elements or anything ridiculous like that. Right?
Well, never mind all that. What good’s permitting some prophet of doom to wipe every smile away?
Life is a cabaret, old chum. So come to the cabaret.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Cabaret” at The PrivateBank Theatre through February 21. More information and tickets ($25 – $98) are available here.