This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Broadway debut of “Cabaret,” Kander and Ebb’s genius of a musical about the end of the flamboyant era of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the death-driven Nazi regime.
To celebrate the milestone, New York’s Roundabout Theatre production of this classic (which has had a number of incarnations since Sam Mendes first directed his London revival in 1993, and then brought director-choreographer Rob Marshall on board as a collaborator for the 1998 and 2014 editions in New York), now has embarked on a national tour. It is now on a stop at Chicago’s PrivateBank Theater (the new name for the Bank of America Theatre).
While every classic musical inspires directors to re-imagine the original, the impulse to put one’s stamp on a show can sometimes result in change for change’s sake, and not necessarily for the better. Such is the case with this “Cabaret.”
To be sure, this show has always thrived on several layers of storytelling and multiple styles, with a realistic take on the scenes among the ordinary inhabitants of Berlin, and a boldly sexual Brechtian performance style for the crucial scenes in the decadent Kit Kat Klub. Ultimately there is the truly shocking transformation that occurs with the clear arrival of the Third Reich.
Mendes has blurred the lines between these layers, at times suggesting we are inside the mind of the writer who lived in Berlin in 1929 and 1930, and subsequently turned his experiences there into a book of stories. (Of course this is just what Christopher Isherwood did in “Goodbye to Berlin,” with a subsequent dramatization by John Van Druten.) But this element of retrospective fantasia, combined with a needlessly heightened level of sexual explicitness (which only dulls the impact), too often robs the show of its real shock value, as well as its heart.
‘CABARET’ Somewhat recommended When: Through Feb. 21 Where: The PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe Tickets: $25 – $108 Info: (800) 775-2000; www.Broadway InChicago.com Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
This is not to say there aren’t some riveting moments in this “Cabaret.”
As Sally Bowles, the unstable, manipulative, cash-strapped English girl who stars at the Kit Kat Klub, and quickly moves in with the American writer Clifford Bradshaw, despite his clearly gayleanings, Andrea Goss is spectacular.
A sparrow of a girl — with a clarion voice, balletic moves and an energy that fills every corner of the theater — Goss is magnetic at every turn, whether propping herself in a giant chair like a child in the “Don’t Tell Mama” cabaret number (which has never been better realized than here), or arriving in a black slip dress to belt out the title song as if she already resided in the underworld.
Less successful is Randy Harrison’s portrayal of the Emcee. Rather than capturing the enigmatic, sexually ambiguous, always suggestive but slippery identity of the character, Harrison is a macho homosexual with drag-queen impulses. Obvious rather than teasing, with messy accents, he is further hobbled by the directors’ choices for him — particularly a crucial moment at the very end of the first act that is cheap and wrong-headed given the circumstances.
For straight-to-the-heart acting there is the vivid work of Chicago actress Shannon Cochran as Fraulein Schneider, the boarding-house landlady who has lived through decades of chaos and survived. Though charmed by her suitor, Herr Schultz (the engaging Mark Nelson) — the Jewish fruit merchant who fails to see the approaching danger —she makes a crucial choice when push comes to shove, and delivers a searing take on it in “What Would You Do?” (The pair’s otherwise charming scene revolving around the gift of a pineapple is sadly undercut by the Emcee’s simultaneous humping with the fruit on a balcony above the stage.)
Lee Aaron Rosen is an aptly conflicted Clifford. Ned Noyes is just smarmy enough as the German who smuggles money to the Nazis. And the Kit Kat Girls are an ideally wasted and whorish bunch of acrobatic dancers, including Alison Ewing, who not only doubles as the sassy prostitute Fraulein Kost but also plays the accordion in the onstage band.
And that band (led by Robert Cookman) is fabulous, notably rocking the house in the long entr’acte that opens the show’s second act.
Although this “Cabaret” feels as if it ends three different times, its very final moment is a new “coup de theatre” I will not divulge here. And though it makes perfect sense, like much in this production, it feels heavy-handed.