“Don’t Tell Mama What You Know”

THEATER REVIEW: Cabaret
Studio 54, New York, January 17, 2015

Cabaret has become the Frankenstein’s monster of Broadway, stitched together with revisions each time it reawakens. The current Studio 54 staging revives a revival from 1997. Before their film successes, Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall directed a Cabaret that aimed to be raunchier and bleaker. Soon, community theaters everywhere started to cast Alan Cumming look-alikes in suspenders and bowties.

The shock has dimmed since 1997. Not a bad thing. What worked best still holds up. The creeping progression of Nazis into the carefree club atmosphere, climaxing in the Emcee’s dance with a gorilla: “Why won’t the world leben und leben lassen? Live and let live?” Or the relationship between landlady Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, her Jewish suitor, and her progression from accepting life (“So What?”) to resigning herself to her fate: “What would you do if you were me?” I loved how Linda Emond grounded herself singing these lyrics, as if afraid to move, but determined to survive.

cabaret-og

The 1966 Kander & Ebb musical was based on John Van Druten’s I Am a Camera, pulled from Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. Cliff Bradshaw is our camera, observing the decadence of Weimar Berlin and its fascist takeover. In the 1966 script, he was presumably straight. By Bob Fosse’s 1972 movie, Cliff’s equivalent was bisexual. The 1997 rewrites give Cliff a male ex-lover at the Kit Kat Klub, plus repeated insinuation that he’s gay. So why does he sleep with Sally Bowles at all now?

On stage, Cliff remains a cypher, and his only solo song (“Why Should I Wake Up?”) has been replaced at Studio 54 with another number for Sally, “Maybe This Time.” Odd to squeeze this song from the movie in, since stage Sally is not usually a strong singer. She never really was, before Liza Minnelli; but she must be thoroughly captivating and irresistible. Emma Stone in her stage debut is a terribly young Sally, a little girl playing dress-up, with a kittenish voice trying to be sensuous. She’s halfway there, but she’s been directed to be overly glum and speak her lines very slowly. To Stone’s credit, she impressed with a seethingly angry “Cabaret.” With Sally trapped in the spotlight, it’s like she realized her whole madcap persona was an act.

With Cliff and Sally dimmed, the Puckish Alan Cumming is the reason to see Cabaret. Sure, he’s playing Alan Cumming these days, but his welcoming asides to clubgoers are laced with increasing menace as the night goes on. His Emcee is both devil and victim, Hitler and innocent—we are all capable of evil, Cumming suggests. No one is safe at the cabaret.

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