PPAC's "Cabaret": Don't Tell Mama, Come Join the Band

Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles, Randy Harrison as the Emcee and the 2016 National Touring Cast of Roundabout Theatre Company's "CABARET"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Life is a Cabaret, old chum”, at least at the Providence Performing Arts Center, where the National Tour of Cabaret kicks off its countrywide schedule. This production evolved from the most recent very successful Broadway revival of the Kander and Ebb musical. The original show tried out in Boston in October 1966, opening in New York the following month. John Kander wrote the Music, Fred Ebb wrote the Lyrics, and Joe Masteroff wrote the Book. Kander and Ebb had previously partnered on their first musical, which also tried out in Boston, Flora the Red Menace, which introduced Liza Minelli. While Flora didn't blossom long, the first run of Cabaret surely did, for three years, with several revivals since. At the start of its original tryout in Boston, the musical had three acts, but was soon trimmed to two before it left the Shubert Theater, a wise move since the show ended up being a taut, unforgettably effective recreation of its time and place. This revival by Roundabout Theatre, which ran for six years, is a revelation. You haven't seen a production of Cabaret at its most powerful until you see this one.

The first act, as anyone familiar with the original production or the subsequent film version will recall, tells the story of Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss) meeting Clifford Bradshaw (Lee Aaron Rosen) at the Kit Kat Klub as she sings “Don't Tell Mama”. It is Germany just as the Nazis are rising to power. Based on the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, in turn based on John Van Druten's play I Am a Camera, it takes place in the raunchy Berlin night club with a bizarre Emcee (Randy Harrison). Bradshaw, an American writer, also meets Ernst Ludwig (Ned Noyes) who offers him work and suggests he room in a boardinghouse run by Fraulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran). Later Sally arrives on Cliff's doorstep, having been thrown out of her apartment. The first act ends with a song that becomes a march with some sinister overtones, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. In the second act, Sally and Cliff have fallen in love, and she confesses she's pregnant. Meanwhile, Fraulein Schneider catches her boarder Fraulein Kost (Alison Ewing) with her turnstyle of admirers, but Kost reminds her she's had her own dalliance with her Jewish suitor Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson). Cliff decides to leave Berlin, but Sally chooses to stay behind for what she sees as a life of freedom, unaware of the imminent descent of the Nazi stormtroopers. As he leaves on the train, Cliff begins to write of his experiences at “the end of the world”.

One of the delights of this stage version is the reinstatement of the romantic relationship between the landlady Fraulein Schneider and her lovely songs with Herr Schultz, “It Couldn't Please Me More (Pineapple)” and “Married”, both entirely cut from the movie. Cochran and Nelson are wonderful together, and her final number, “What Would You Do?”, has never seemed so moving. As she admits, “I regret...everything”. Another aspect that was, for all intents and purposes, lost in the film version is the ever-increasing menace of the rise of the Nazi party. With this aspect restored, on both emotional and political levels, it's a much more involving experience. This makes the ultimate fate of the relationships all the more telling and poignant. There is heart to be treasured, but fleeting and doomed in the path of the politics of the era. There is also a new song written for the Broadway revival, “I Don't Care Much”, which captures the attitude of those most oblivious to reality.

In this touring version, the company has a very believable Sally and Cliff in the persons of Goss and Rosen, both of whom sing exceptionally well and have real chemistry together. Goss is especially devastating in her rendering of the title song, at one and the same time ferocious and vulnerable. Noyes and Ewing are also strong in their pivotal roles hinting at how easy it was to go along to get along. But any production of this show rises or falls on the performance of its Emcee, and Harrison is a mesmerizing triple threat, his acting fierce, his movement sinuous, his singing stunning as he hovers almost non-stop over the proceedings. One is totally blown away by the visual ending (not to be revealed here) which is unexpectedly yet logically both overwhelmingly theatrical and shattering.

The success of this brilliant rethinking of the show is in large part due to the genius of the revival's creative team headed by its original Director Sam Mendes and Co-Director and Choreographer Rob Marshall. The touring company is helmed by Director BT McNicholl with Choreography recreated by Cynthia Onrubia. The unit set by Robert Brill is versatile (most effective in the night club scenes), the Costume Design by William Ivey Long is perfect, and the Lighting Design by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari, as well as the Sound Design by Keith Caggiano are fabulous. Even the entr'acte has been re-imagined with a terrific turn by the onstage orchestra with an accompanying kick line by the Kit Kat Klub Kittens.

Until the clouds of storm troopers gather, there's a great deal of divine decadence on display, notably those ripped abs and glamorous gams. It's racy, raunchy, raucous and risque. It's also a whole lot of fun. Go, but, as those Kittens warn, “Don't Tell Mama”.

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