I Me Mein: Sam Mendes’ Cabaret
Although one is walking through the rain ostensibly to Studio 54, one is actually ushered into what amounts to a spruced up seedy night club by the name of the Kit Kat Club. Manhattan is a world away and the folks behind the “newest” production of Cabaret have done their best to transport you to Weimar Germany, where the waitresses and waiters put on a strong face, only ever hinting at the sinister reality underneath. The table is small, with a quaint lamp atop it, and you aren’t given a program until the end of the show. Whatever it is I just saw, I was mesmerized. I was both welcomed to and rejected from the cabaret, and I couldn’t have asked for anything else.
American Cliff Bradshaw (Bill Heck) moves to Berlin to starve as an artist (novelist specifically) and falls into the whirlwind world of the city, with the flighty English cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Michelle Williams). All under their noses, and outside of the night club, Nazism is on the rise and the realities rear their ugly head. Underlying this is a night club called the Kit Kat Club, home of the strange, flamboyant Master of Ceremonies and his team of entertainers.
Although the atmosphere of the club isn’t as thickly convincing as, say, the club over at Sleep No More, it nonetheless achieves a certain amount of success in transporting the audience member to a very specific place. But it isn’t the Kit Kat Club from Bob Fosse’s 1972 seminal film adaptation; it’s a darker and more alienating place. The dancers are covered in bruises and their stockings are ripped, their heavy make up barely covering their misery. There’s something hypersexual in the air, but in a deeply unpleasant way. Take a look at the choreography (by co-director Rob Marshall) and the movements are focused on dehumanizing the body, making sex as much of a commodity as possible, and shoving that in the audience’s face. It’s sort of disconcerting seeing the dancers, who range from curiously thin to very muscular, sweat and look miserable in front of your eyes (I was seated at a table in the third row). One would understandably be prone to accusing this production of a good amount of objectification (even the band players are really attractive), but that may exactly be the point. It isn’t explicitly evident, probably logic reasons, but something is rotten in the city of Berlin.
Alan Cumming, who is touted as one of the two major stars of the production, was unfortunately sick at the performance I saw, but Leeds Hill nonetheless fills his shoes with aplomb. Although I couldn’t help wondering what Cumming would have been like in the role, I decided I had a good idea, both because of Hill’s ace mimicry as well as my familiarity with Cumming in general. That said, Hill performs excellently. This interpretation of the character, as aggressively sexual, world weary, and cynical, is notably different from Joel Grey’s more asexual, nevertheless insidious performance. But the rampant sexuality of the play, and the film, raise some interesting questions. Allegedly, this production (a revival of the 1998 revival by Oscar winner Sam Mendes and Marshall) is basically a hybrid of the film, the original production, and the book both are based upon, Christopher Isherwood’s I Am a Camera. The important factor in this is that sexuality plays a critical role: Isherwood was gay, Michael York’s Brian Roberts is bisexual, and here Cliff is bisexual, with the Emcee presumed to just be sexual. Prior to the Third Reich marching about Berlin, the city was well known for its homosexual activity, which soon became a prosecutable offense. Very little is known about homosexuality during the Third Reich besides its forbidden nature.
With that in mind, the Emcee particularly ends up being a button and boundary pushing element to the musical. Though the character is undoubtedly multifaceted, this iteration allows sexuality to be a defining characteristic, making the play more dangerous, funny, and appropriately forbidden. “Willkommen” is adapted into a perverse freak shows, essentially, or at least a more perverse one. “Two Ladies” is like a barking laugh instead of a chuckle, the strain of the contextual background and the self-awareness of the characters merging. “Two Ladies” becomes a very strange examination of sexual and gender fluidity, using in addition to the Emcee, one cabaret girl and one cabaret boy in drag. The Emcee openly sneers “Money” and “If You Could See Her”, precariously balancing black comedy and solemnity. And his cameos throughout the rest of the show are like the dog bearing its teeth in the face of doom. He thrusts his pelvis, feels up the cabaret boys and girls, but his sexuality is the last remnant of his personality to exist before the heavy hand of Fascism takes control. I guess it’s his way of welcoming you to the cabaret.
The other person to make a hubbub about is Michelle Williams, who, though no stranger to the stage, makes her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles, a role played by any number of famous people. The only negative thing I have to say about her is that her English accent is average. But Williams, a master class actress whose range is edging towards the unquantifiable, is able to get to the core of the important aspects of the aloof, naive Toast of Mayfair. With Williams, there’s an absolutely precise balance between the actress’s shyness and reserved nature, channeled as naiveté, and the personable, life of the party and begging to be a star enthusiasm, manifested as sort of graceful confidence (that’s a good thing). Her voice is more than serviceable, especially given that a) Sally Bowles is kind of an amateur probably on par with another Kander and Ebb female character Roxie Hart and b) the types of songs she sings. There’s effort there and deliberate eagerness and confidence when Williams goes through “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr”, which is appealing and sexy. But the actress’s superb fragility, which is evident in such films as Blue Valentine, work well for “Maybe This Time” and an unexpectedly show stopping rendition of “CABARET”. Her voice trembles during these songs, and rightfully so. So Williams does well with this character, and nothing, beyond her accent, seems forced. She seems at home under the platinum blonde bob of Sally Bowles.
“Money, Money” in a post-housing market crash society feels very strange this time around. The song, which always had a satirical bite since it was written for Fosse’s film, now feels even more desperate and depressing. The female dancers, whose torn clothing and trashy look become all the more evident, crawl on the ground, hungry, nearly begging. Thus, the implicit background to this version amplifies songs like “Money, Money”, making their impact sharper and more indelible.
On the other side of the story is the love story between Fraulein Schneider (Linda Edmond) and Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein), the former of whom runs the squalid hotel-ish thing that Cliff stays in and the latter of whom is a Jewish fruit vendor. While separately, their performances, and characters in general, fail to leave the same impression as the Emcee and Sally Bowles (maybe the fault of the legacy of the play itself), together it becomes a sweet, but clandestine love, amplified by a melancholic rendition of “Married”. Cliff, the American, is fine, but I had the impression that there was perhaps not enough fury towards the end. The forceful realization for Sally didn’t seem forceful enough. Good though these three were, it just may come with the territory that their roles end up sort of deferring to the Emcee and Sally.
The production of Cabaret sort of uses elements of actor/muso productions, in which some of the actors on the stage also perform the score, but it isn’t made explicitly clear how many levels of metareality the show is intending to work on. It may be more traditional, given that the non-diegetic songs (“Married”, “So What”, etc.) are included sans “flash” (which would be, in this case, grit), but at the same time there is the perfect possibility that everything is just being performed in the Kit Kat Club, not unlike the mental patients who put on Sweeney Todd in John Doyle’s 2004 production. Why else would there be so much effort to make one feel as if they are in the club, with some inessential audience participation and all? Let us, for the sake of this review, assume it is playing with those several layers. What then is the point of watching this production? Perhaps because previous versions of the story skimped on one aspect core to it or another, Mendes’s production might then be a culmination of everything Cabaret wants to be and more. Disturbing, moving, jarring, disconcerting, seedy. In this, desperate people cling to invisible, impossible things or things that will become their downfall. Their relationships with each other and with themselves are destroyed.
Cabaret is essentially about the ignorance and apathy that people show and have shown as terrible things happen under their noses. When the club isn’t playing music, what happens then? One of the most successful aspects of this production is just how relentless it is. It is beautifully menacing. At the end, the Emcee asks, “Where are your troubles now?” Well, right in front of us.