Wednesday, April 21, 2010

New Review Posted: Cabaret

Centerstage has posted my review of the new production of Cabaret that The Hypocrites are doing at the Storefront Theatre in the Loop. This one was particularly hard to fit into 300 words, so you all get the things I left out.

I'm wondering at this point whether Cabaret has an actual text left. Aside from possibly Candide, no show has had more significant alterations taking place. After the 1972 movie, most productions have dropped "The Telephone Song" (which is so much fun) and the original "Money Song" (it was called "Sitting Pretty" and featured only the Emcee--"Money Makes The World Go Around" was added for the film). Only about half of the productions use "Why Should I Wake Up?" and many add "Mein Herr," "Maybe This Time," and the new "Money Song" from the movie, not to mention "I Don't Care Much" a song that didn't make it in to the original production, and a song that I think is called "Don't Go Sally," whose provenance is unknown to me. (It's also probably the weakest in the score, though this production made me like it more than I remembered.) Meanwhile, different characters sing the creepily lovely Nazi anthem "Tomorrow Belongs To Me," depending on the version. This one actually sings it twice--the first time for the invented character of the Boy, the second in the familiar spot in the engagement party, while the production I saw in London used it as a pretext for a naked ballet, with no plot context whatsoever. (Yes, naked ballet. This was the nakedest show I've ever seen, and even that couldn't save it.)

The point being, Cabaret seems to have become a director's show--an opportunity for directors to use a play to make a statement. The fact that all four productions I've seen have used a different script is rather stunning--and I'm sure there are more versions out there. And just once, I'd like to see the original script. In a few years, I hope someone will have the anthropological courage to do the original version (maybe in 2016 for the 50th anniversary?). At this point, it would be a piece of theatrical restoration similar to what ATC will be doing next season with the original Chicago version of Grease.

That aside, however, this production is really wonderful. (Indeed, it's the first of those four productions I've seen that has been better than mediocre.) What's important is that in the initial scenes, it makes the Kit Kat Club looks like a lot of fun. The first act really is delightful (and genuinely sexy). This is a problem that so many productions face: the club doesn't just look seedy, it looks like a hellhole, with hostile Emcee and junkie dancers. (This became the default position after Sam Mendes' famed staging in the 1990's.) The problem is that if it looks so unappealing, it makes no sense that Cliff would stay more than a few minutes, that Sally would desperately want to return, or that the audience would have any investment in the place. It goes part and parcel with playing the end of the show at the beginning--too many versions make it impossible to ignore the Nazis from the start, which undercuts the power of the show at the end. The manic, sexy first act in this version doesn't even mention Nazis.

To respond to some criticism I've seen elsewhere: yes, it's unsubtle. I imagine if they didn't pull it off, the third act would feel like being bludgeoned repeatedly. But what can I say? It absolutely worked for me. One critic's pummeling is another's ballsy awesomeness, I suppose.

Anyhow, enough nattering. Here's the text of my review:

Few musicals have been altered more frequently than "Cabaret." Ever since Bob Fosse's 1972 movie radically rewrote the 1966 musical, it seems that every major production has made significant changes to the songs performed, their order, the book and more. And Matt Hawkins' new production makes some significant changes — making the Emcee into a woman (Jessie Fisher) and dividing the action into three acts, for instance. Purists could easily object, but what matters is whether the show works. And this bold, go-for-broke "Cabaret" works, spectacularly.

The story takes place in Berlin on the eve of the Nazi ascendancy: Cliff (Michael Peters), an American would-be novelist, falls in love with Sally (Lindsay Leopold), a self-destructive entertainer at the Kit Kat Club, which is overseen by the Emcee (Fisher). Their landlady (Kate Harris) falls in love with a boarder (Jim Heatherly), but politics and religion prove insurmountable boundaries.

The revolution of "Cabaret" is the way it balances traditional book songs with numbers in the club that comment on the action, and the most important reason that this production succeeds is that both halves work gorgeously. The cabaret numbers are surreal, dazzling and theatrical, and Fisher is marvelous, with a vibrant voice, wicked grin and real depth, but we also genuinely care about these people and their problems. We like the characters through the light and sexy first act and worry for them in the shadowed second, and so the third is absolutely devastating.

The cast is a huge help in this: Leopold, stripping away the showbiz melodrama that sometimes accrues to the character, is particularly riveting, and the entire ensemble of cabaret girls and boys (in Alison Siple's delightful costumes) provide excellent support to Fisher and create a compelling world. There's more good to point out (and a few small flaws, including inconsistent accents and pronunciations), but I think by now the point is clear — this is an exceptional production of a great musical. Go see it.


mpjedi2 said...


I can't even describe the fun that I have had, and the pure sexiness I have experienced in seedy hellholes.

Just saying..

Zev Valancy said...


You make a valid point. But there is a difference between the fun kind and the repellent kind of seedy hellhole.

Mr. K said...

I thought this hit the right transition between fun hellhole & repulsive hellhole in this production.

But I actually felt like the third act was pretty bludgeony. The history buff in me kept thinking, "why is the SS here? The SA is still running around, and they wore GREEN uniforms" (I know, I know, artistic license). And I felt they missed the point of "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes", which is that it's not clever political satire, aimed at the Nazis. It's broad and tasteless burlesque. Just like everything else at the Kit Kat Club.

But yeah, a great Sally Bowles, and I'm coming to the realization that Jessie Fisher is fascinating and should be cast in every single role available in Chicago.

Zev Valancy said...

As I said, the bludgeon-ness is a matter of taste and how it hit you. I can see it not working as well for people, but damn did it work for me.

I imagine your issues with historical accuracy were probably a factor. I'm not sure I even saw those figures as literal SS members, though--the leather masks and such made them figures of doom (and that moment they first appeared was pretty damn chilling), so they worked in the more abstracted sense for me.

And for me, the new spin on "If You Could See Her" made sense with that interpretation of the Emcee. If she's anti-Nazi, she might indulge in serious social commentary.

And agreed on the performers. Jessie Fisher is definitely fun to watch, and I was amazed at how few Chicago shows Lindsay Leopold, but I know we'll see more of her.

Did you like it overall, though?

Mr. K said...

Oh, yeah I did like it overall. If I'm being so picky, it's because they got so darn close. And because the lead-up to WWII/WWII is one of two eras where I know the most history (the other being Civil War).

Also, I'd like to single out "The Money Song" as being particularly well-done, both as a musical number and as a way of articulating the attitudes that helped give rise to the Nazis.

Mr. K said...

You know, someday, someone (or some people) need to sit down and watch "Cabaret", "The Damned" & "Mephisto" and compare their different attitudes towards cabaret/theatre culture in Weimar/WWII Germany & accommodation of the Nazi rise.

Zev Valancy said...

Absolutely agreed on "The Money Song"--I think it's a great example of how Hawkins' vision illuminated the show rather than obscuring it. And that costume was awesome.

And I think we've found you a Master's thesis topic.