By Tulis McCall

In this production of Cabaret, now at the August Wilson Theatre, we are greeted with a completely renovated space that leaves us room to sit in a 360 degree formation.  Our Emcee (Eddie Redmayne), who will prove to be a chameleon in short order, gives us our marching orders.

Leave your troubles outside!

So… life is disappointing? Forget it! We have no troubles here! Here, life is beautiful… The girls are beautiful… Even the orchestra is beautiful!

Except nothing is beautiful when we examine what is dimly lit on the stage. In this production even the idea of beauty is squashed before it has a chance to slither out into the light.  The complete overhaul of the theatre, however, can make a person forget pretty much everything except what is being presented.

We are in Weimar-era Berlin as American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Ato Blankson-Wood arrives.  He is there to write and soak up whatever he can find on offer.   Bradshaw experiences the grace of a traveler’s casual meeting and is directed to the rooming house of Fraulein Schneider (Bebe Neuwirth) first and to the doorstep of The Kit Kat Club second.  There he meets Sally Bowles (Gayle Rankin) and there is no looking back.  Too bad.  Things will not go well, and neither party will give up until danger fills the doorway.

On the other end of the spectrum is what I consider to be the heart of the story, or at least the one to which we can attach without losing our footing.  It is the love story of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (Steven Skybell).  These are two older people who have already lived through WWI and are getting by from day to day.  She is the landlady of a rooming house and he is a fruit peddler.  Both are operating with the permission of the government.  Their friendship is well worn, but it is clear that Herr Schultz would like more.  He woos her with fruit, and in his eyes it is the most romantic of gestures.

Stephen Skybell and Bebe Neuwirth; Photo by Marc Brenner

Meanwhile back at the Kit Kat Club things are deteriorating so much that Sally is left homeless until she wheedles her way into Cliff’s room while Frauline Schneider looks in the other direction.

The story gets a little spotty as we are asked to divide our attention between what is going on outside the club and what is going on inside.  In addition, each time the Emcee appears he is in costume, wig and makeup that change with each appearance.  His costumes include a Commedia dell’Arte clown, a futuristic black body suit,  an androgynous lederhosen outfit and a freshly minted blonde haired Nazi.  So frequent are these changes that we lose a connection to the Emcee as a guide.  He becomes part of the spectacle rather than the conductor of the train.

Photo by Marc Brenner

There are other hiccups as well.  Gayle Rankin starts on a level so high that she has nowhere to go and gets stuck in the rafters.  Ato Blankson-Wood is out of his depth here.  His performance as the American observing the approach of the Nazi era lacks specificity.  He appears to be one step behind every moment he is onstage.

Ergo there is little connection to our three main characters.  A problem.

It is Bebe Neuwirth who shows us all how the magic is made.  Neuwirth is clear, precise and focused.  When she has to face the fact that her fiancé is a Jew and this puts them both in danger, the young ‘uns chide her for “giving up.”   In no-nonsense simple words she tells them:

… if you fail – what does it matter? You pack your belongings. You move to Paris. And if you do not like Paris – where? It is easy for you. But if you were me…

She then sings:

WITH TIME RUSHING BY,
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

WITH THE CLOCK RUNNING DOWN,
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
THE YOUNG ALWAYS HAVE THE CURE,
BEING BRAVE, BEING SURE AND FREE.
BUT IMAGINE IF YOU WERE ME…

She tells them:

…if the Nazis come
– I will survive. And if the Communists come
– I will still be here – renting these rooms!
For, in the end, what other choice have I?
This – Is my world!

She leaves the stage and we want to go with her.  Because we cannot, we stand and cheer – because THIS moment is the nut of the story delivered at the eleventh hour.

Everything else leading up to this moment is spectacle.  A  beautifully executed spectacle.  A puff pastry that is delightful to look at and once eaten is easy to forget.  Which is a disappointment as the whole point of this tale is to remember.  Look around at what is going on in this country right now.   Look and take heed.  It is not a pretty picture.

PS The entire show is staged with Orchestra 1 and Mezzanine 1,2 3 in mind.  The actors play to these sections roughly 50% of the time.  Remember this if you are getting tickets.  Sit anywhere else and you will be seeing a lot of people’s backs and behinds. With all the work put into creating a nightclub out of a theatre, one would think some thought to the staging would have been a good idea.  BTB – this happens a lot all over town where there is a thrust stage or an in the round production.  PPS – There is food and drink available for the ringside seats – you can see that option on the ticket site.  There is also a pre-show of dance and drink in the lobby – the entrance is a labyrinth so watch your step!

CABARET at the KIT KAT CLUB Book by Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Directed by Rebecca Frecknall

WITH Eddie Redmayne, reprising his London performance as The Emcee; Gayle Rankin  as Sally Bowles; Ato Blankson-Wood as Cliff; Bebe Neuwirth as Fraulein Schneider; Steven Skybell as Herr Schultz; Natascia Diaz as Fraulein Kost and Fritzie; and Henry Gottfried as Ernst Ludwig.

The cast also includes Marty Lauter as Victor, Gabi Campo as Frenchie, Ayla Ciccone-Burton as Helga, Colin Cunliffe as Hans, Loren Lester as Herman/Max, David Merino as Lulu, Julian Ramos as Bobby, MiMi Scardulla as Texas, and Paige Smallwood as Rosie.

As in the production’s West End run, the theatre has been transformed into an in-the-round Kit Kat Club. Ticket holders receive a “club entry time” before their show date so that everyone’s able to take in the pre-show, which can even include a full dinner at some ticket levels. The prologue company, a group of 12 dancers and musicians, welcome theatergoers with a pre-show performance beginning approximately 75 minutes prior to curtain time.

The Broadway prologue company comprises dancers Alaïa, Iron BryanWill Ervin Jr., Sun Kim, and Deja McNair. The musicians include Brian Russell Carey on piano and bass, Francesca Dawis on violin, Maeve Stier on accordion, and Michael Winograd on clarinet. Rounding out the company are dancer swings Ida Saki and Spencer James Weidie, and dedicated substitute musician Keiji Ishiguri.

Much of the production’s creative team is reprising their work for the Broadway bow, including choreographer Julia Cheng; club, set, and costume designer Tom Scutt; lighting designer Isabella Byrd; sound designer Nick Lidster (for Autograph); and music supervisor and director Jennifer Whyte. Hair and wig design are by Sam Cox, and Guy Common is handling makeup design. Prologue composition and music direction are by Angus MacRae, with Jordan Fein serving as prologue director.

TICKETS HERE