Reviewed by James Murray
As a part of Roundabout Theatre Company's 50th Anniversary Season, Broadway in Chicago has teamed up with them to launch a national tour of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall's revolutionary revision of Kander & Ebb's Cabaret, now in a solid production at the PrivateBank Theatre (the old Schubert).
This production comes to Chicago directly from Broadway with a uniformly stellar cast.
Cabaret, based on Christopher Ishwood's novel "I Am a Camera" is the story of Berlin in the late 1920s and the rise of the Nazis. Clifford Bradshaw, a young, handsome novelist (a superb performance by Lee Aaron Rosen) has just arrived in an exciting and decadent Berlin in order to finish his novel. On the train he meets Ernst Ludwig (well played by Ned Noyes) who befriends him and helps him find a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider (the incomparable Shannon Cochran in at her finest). Ernst introduces Cliff to the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy and highly popular night club where we meet the Master of Ceremonies the Emcee (a tour de force and flawless performance by Randy Harrison of Queer as Folk fame) and it's "star" the flamboyant Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss as one of the finest Sally Bowles I have seen).
In the world of The Kit Kat Klub anything goes and we are introduced to the filthy underbelly and moral decay or Germany (really in your face). Sally is immediately attracted to Cliff and, when fired from the club, arrives on his doorstep and moves in. We learn that Cliff is more into men than women but Sally does not let that stand in her way.
In the subplot Fraulein Schneider is being courted by Herr Schultz (beautifully played by Mark Nelson) who is a Jew. As the story progresses we experience the noose tighten around his neck when he becomes engaged to Fraulein Schneider and she realizes the price she will pay for marrying a Jew.
Sally Bowles becomes pregnant and is planning on having another abortion when Cliff stops her and suggests they become a family. For the first time in her life Sally has fallen madly in love and agrees to have the child and stay with Cliff.
Not to give away the ending to anyone who has not experienced this newly revised Cabaret ( it is disturbing) we see evil permeate Berlin resulting in what we have learned in school and, what we had hoped, would never happen again. Now 70 years later we are right back where Berlin was in the 30s and 40s with mass exterminations, an alarming rise of anti-Semitism and inhumanity beyond belief. The evil we thought had passed has just remained hidden below the surface; how timely Cabaret still is.
Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall's Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1998 starring Alan Cummings and Natasha Richardson, winning four Tony Awards and blowing the dust off of the original. In this production they have stripped away any façade of decency from the original 1966 production and provide a gritty, highly sexualized and debauched world that wears thin over the evening and loses it shock appeal after 30 minutes. What worked well with the original is that the decay was implied at the beginning and covered with a normal façade. As in Burlesque it was slowly stripped away as time passed. In many ways the original had more shock value due to its seemingly normalcy. This is especially noticeable in the redundant choreography for the Kit Kat Klub performers where everything is in-your-face sex and gyrations (I will admit that they have assembled one gorgeous collection of flesh that are a pleasure to watch!).
Although I may have some issues with this interpretation this is one, powerfully acted and designed production with an outstanding cast and orchestra who are at the top of their game. The show entertains shocks and moves the audience in just the manner intended by the creators, director and choreographer and gives it a sense of immediacy which keeps us engaged and enthralled. A mixture of Brecht and Glass Menagerie, this Cabaret combines the expressionism of German art in the 20s with a Tennessee Williams memory play, overseen by the Emcee who assumes many roles, and the sparse design allows the scenes and characters to move quickly in and out as a bad dream, allowing the story to build to its horrifying climax. This is a highly thought-out, executed and successful production that follows through with the dark world it creates.
Other standouts in the cast are Fraulein Kost played by Alison Ewing, a prostitute who rents rooms at Fraulein Schneider's boarding house. Ewing has an arresting and interesting face and looks right out of the era.
This is a Cabaret that will remain etched in your psyche for some time and makes you think how you would handle your world being turned upside down. It is also a reminder of the inherent evil that lurks just below the surface of people and how quickly mobs can turn against all you hold sacred.
Cabaret runs at the PrivateBank Theatre through February 21st. Tickets range from $25 to $108.00. Tickets may be purchased through the Broadway in Chicago Box Office at 312-977-1710.
Related: ChicagoPride.com interview with Randy Harrison