I have two words for you: Alan Cumming. I have two more words for you: Danny Burstein. These two actors are the glue that holds this production together.
Cumming is, of course, the M.C. for the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin. The year is 1929 and the word is “yes”. Yes to whatever you want. Yes to whomever you want. Yes to whatever you want to do with whomever. Sex and drugs are both commodities, and the supply is unlimited. The Nazi’s presence is obvious but the nature of that beast is remote and not to be imagined. Like the flappers across the pond in the U.S. these people are gorging on life’s excesses.
Into this melee comes one Clifford Bradshaw (Bill Heck). He is an American, a would be novelist, in search of a story and students who want to learn English. On the train to Berlin he meets Ernst Ludwig (Aaron Krohn ) who recommends the rooming house of Fraulein Schneider (Linda Emond ) where Bradshaw will find shelter and friendship. Ludwig also directs Bradshaw to the Kit Kat Club – hottest spot in the city. Telephones on every table. Girls call you – boys call you – you call them – instant connections. The Kit Kat Klub is where Sally Bowles, (Michelle Williams) the headliner at the club, will find Bradshaw. And that will be that. Sort of.
The story moves to the rooming house. After meeting and carrying on with Bradshaw, Sally is tossed out of her room at the Kit Kat Klub – specifically the one she shared with Max, the club’s owner. Sally seeks out our American boy at his rooming house and inserts herself into his life with the promise of more money for Fraulein Schneider that Sally doesn’t have. Re-enter Ernst Ludwig with an offer of funds in return for some “courier” work between Paris and Berlin that will help a “political party.” Problem solved.
Meanwhile Fräulein Schneider is juggling bits in her own life. Fräulein Kost (Gayle Rankin) who is entertaining one nephew from the Navy after the other with dizzying frequency, and in order to keep her reputation as well as her rooms full, Schneider must do some fast thinking. She however is buoyed by her relationship with the Herr Schultz – and this is where Danny Burstein enters the picture. Herr Schultz is an immaculate, gentle man who believes in honesty, integrity, good people, good fruit and glad hearts. His devotion to Fräu Schneider is a thing of beauty. And he can waltz. Seriously. (Why is dancing not taught to actors. Stop with the swaying!) That Schneider and Schultz should be married seems as simple as simple can be. Until the engagement party finds a pooper in Ernst Ludwig and his Nazi armband. When a guest lets it drop that Schultz is a Jew, Ludwig cautions Schneider in bold print. The party goes to Hell in a Hitler handbag. Schneider and Schultz will part ways with Sally and Stephen not far behind.
While the doomed relationship of the young-un’s is also a featured motif in this story, the lack of chemistry between Williams and Heck curbs our interest and slows the pace of the production considerably. In addition, Ms. Williams’ performance lacks vitality and spark except for brief moments in her musical numbers. On the other hand Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz – with a few excellent musical numbers between them – are completely engaging. We measure the creeping effect of the Nazi’s by the sounds of footsteps approaching their doors. While Schultz does not believe the Nazi’s will be so bad or stay in power so long, Schneider is more pragmatic. Her own friends are in the party, and one wrong word will take away her permit for her boarding house. She will not risk depending on the man who loves her because he is a liability. No. She will continue on alone and trusts that she will survive as she has always done.
The band, who also dance and sing, are having the time of their lives wherever they pop up, and their conductor Patrick Vaccariello is nearly exuberant. The numbers from the Kit Kat Klub that punctuate the evening never let you forget that year it is or what is on the horizon. They are exquisite and cruel, inviting and abusive, delicious and dangerous.
Throughout, it is Cumming who not only leads this band of performers in their music but also moves through the two love stories like a shuttle on a loom. Dressed only in black and white, he is the source of all the color that this tale possesses. When he is not center stage he is lurking nearby. Cumming is the master of this ceremony. He is the conduit, pulling the performers together and then reaching out a hand to yank us in. The audience does not get to sit idly by – stuffed together four at a table that should only seat two – and merely observe this story. This is hip boot time so strap on a pair and wade over to Studio 54.
Book by Joe Masteroff; music by John Kander; lyrics by Fred Ebb; based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood; directed by Sam Mendes; co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall; musical director/vocal arranger, Patrick Vaccariello; set and club design by Robert Brill; costumes by William Ivey Long; lighting by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari; sound by Brian Ronan; orchestrations by Michael Gibson; dance and incidental music by David Krane; original musical coordinator, John Monaco; hair and wig design by Paul Huntley; makeup design by Angelina Avallone; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht; production stage manager, Arthur Gaffin; associate choreographer/choreography re-created by Cynthia Onrubia; associate director, B T McNicholl; technical supervisor, Steve Beers; associate managing director, Greg Backstrom; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis; executive producer, Sydney Beers. Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director; Ms. Beers, general manager. At Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, Manhattan, 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Through Jan. 4. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
WITH: Alan Cumming (M.C.), Michelle Williams (Sally Bowles), Linda Emond (Fräulein Schneider), Danny Burstein (Herr Schultz), Bill Heck (Clifford Bradshaw), Aaron Krohn (Ernst Ludwig) and Gayle Rankin (Fritzie/Fräulein Kost).