Thursday, April 25, 2024

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club (August Wilson Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

For all of the much vaunted accouterments of the award-winning London import, this latest revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s enduring 1966 musical finds Joe Masteroff’s book more or less intact. But, as in most stage productions since the 1972 movie version, leading man Cliff, the stand-in for Christopher Isherwood, whose stories inspired the play "I Am a Camera" before the musical, is pointedly more interested in “boys” than “girls.” Even so, the affair with chanteuse Sally Bowles plays out along its familiar lines. 

Musically, this production follows the playbook of the 1988 Alan Cumming/Sam Mendes production. Original numbers such as “The Telephone Song,” “Meeskite,” “Why Should I Wake Up,” “Sitting Pretty” have not been restored. And, in their place, we still have “Mein Herr,” “Money,” and “Maybe This Time” from the film, plus “I Don’t Care Much,” written for but not used in the original production. 

Director Rebecca Frecknall’s production is staged in the round though the bulk of the audience is positioned as per the Wilson Theatre’s customary layout, albeit with tables up front. The rows which follow directly behind are equipped with drink ledges which makes seat access a tad tight.

Scenic Designer Tom Scutt has effected a quite spectacular transformation of the theater from top to bottom, so much so that it is quite a challenge to discern the normal configuration of the place. Only the central staircases leading to the auditorium and the position of the restrooms allow one to get one’s bearings. As if all this weren’t enough, Scutt also designed the costumes. (Isabella Byrd’s lighting design complements Scutt’s work seamlessly.) 

The show itself is prefaced by a mostly superfluous 75 minute “prologue” of supposedly Weimar era performers, nine in all, dancing provocatively on raised platforms or running amongst the crowd. One enters the theater not through the lobby, but rather a side alley and then steps down to the multi-level club. It’s all very dimly lit (restrooms included) and I found it more than a little claustrophobic. Before the actual show begins, there’s more mood-setting activity on the auditorium level. 

Clearly, there is much good in this production, but the over-the-top tawdry decadence level seems to rise with each new production. But I fear a major revival of the show as it was in 1966 is unlikely.

Eddie Redmayne has created a very individual and striking Emcee, quite different from the interpretations of both creator Joel Grey and revival star Alan Cumming. Whether as carrot-topped clown, marionette, or stormtrooper, he’s quite a marvel to watch, and sings very well indeed, as we hear especially in his two most lyrical moments,  “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and “I Don’t Care Much.” When  he’s not performing one of Kit Kat numbers, he lurks about as a silent observer. 

Gayle Rankin’s Sally is also first rate, giving the character a hard edge but not so much that we can’t understand why the sexually ambivalent Cliff falls under her spell. I didn’t particularly care for the staging of her first number, “Don’t Tell Mama” (choreographed by Julia Cheng), but thereafter found her to be a dynamic and engaging presence, skillful in her dramatic scenes, and impressive vocally. Like Redmayne, she’s careful not to imitate her predecessors, and all her numbers are intelligently delivered. Her manic, defiant rendition of the title song near the end was quite sensational, and it gets my vote for showstopper of the season. 

Bebe Neuwirth is absolutely tremendous as boarding house landlady Fraulein Schneider. She doesn’t make a false move here dramatically or vocally. Her latter-day vibrato works well in this context, and she masterfully delivers the three big numbers originated by Lotte Lenya. She’s beautifully matched by Steven Skybell (Tevye in the Joel Grey directed “Fiddler on the Roof”) as fruit seller Herr Schultz who gives a warm sensitive performance. Also fine are Henry Gottfried as Ernst Ludwig who befriends Cliff but later reveals the dark side beneath the cheerful affability. And Natascia Diaz as Fraulein Kost also delineates well the duality of her personality: carefree call girl masking hard-edged intolerance. 

The one discordant casting is Ato Blankson-Wood as Cliff. Blankson-Wood is a very good actor, as his Hamlet in last year’s Public Theater production confirmed -- and that production will, incidentally, air on PBS’s “Great Performances” this month -- but his performance on this occasion is oddly lackluster. So, too, this is color blind casting that requires an unreasonable suspension of disbelief, particularly with race such an obvious issue in the incipient Nazi era.

Musically, under the direction of Jennifer Whyte, the classic John Kander and Fred Ebb score, sounds good as ever, and I must commend the sound design of Nick Lidster for Autograph for the crystalline clarity of both music and dialogue. 

Even if the immersive elements are not your cup of tea -- and they certainly weren’t mine -- you might consider bypassing much of it, and just heading for your seats in the theater proper to experience this flawed but still worthy production. 

(Kit Kat Club at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52 Street;

Photos by Marc Brenner

(top) Eddie Redmayne

(below) Steven Skybell and Bebe Neuwirth  

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