Cabaret will never be the same.
The by-now classic musical, by John Kander and Fred Ebb, with book by Joe Masteroff, originally opened in 1966 and recalled a time when Hitler arose in Germany and its neighbors, let alone the United States, did nothing about it. Many in the audience had been affected by the resultant World War II, and the production, which was set in an elegantly seedy bar in Berlin, featured mirrors that eventually turned on the audience, implicating those present in Hitler’s actions, a most uncomfortable but oddly exciting feeling to be sure. The star of the production was the cabaret’s Master of Ceremonies, Joel Grey, in what would become his most iconic performance.
A film followed, and the Broadway version was rewritten to make the bankable Liza Minnelli the star as cabaret singer Sally Bowles. Mr. Grey appeared in the film, but his part appeared to be less important. Kander and Ebb wrote – or in one case, re-purposed – several new songs for the film version, and quite a few of the original songs were dropped. The film couldn’t implicate its audience at the end, but it simulated doing so with flair.
In 1993, British director Sam Mendes re-thought Cabaret and staged a limited run at his Donmar Warehouse company. Mr. Mendes brought back some of the original songs from the Broadway version, strengthened the secondary plot involving Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, made the Kit Kat Klub truly seedy and put at least some of the audience at cabaret tables to complete the setting.
And – he restored the importance of the Master of Ceremonies by casting Alan Cumming. The sexily androgynous Mr. Cumming slithered around the stage, popping in and out of scenes, and improvised charmingly with patrons at the cabaret tables. Implicating the audience was gone, replaced by implicating Mr. Cumming, which, in its day, was probably fairly shocking.
In 1998, New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company brought Mr. Mendes to New York to present a larger, probably more “American,” version of his Donmar Cabaret. Roundabout paired Mr. Mendes with Broadway director/choreographer Rob Marshall, and they imported Mr. Cumming to reprise his Donmar role. Sally Bowles was played by Natasha Richardson, a classically-trained actress without a lot of singing experience. The show was also staged with cabaret tables surrounding the stage.
It was a huge hit for Roundabout and Mr. Cumming in particular, who stayed with it for the entire run, while actresses playing Sally came and went.
It became “the” version of Cabaret, and it has been widely copied by regional theatre companies throughout the U. S.
Roundabout put Cabaret back on stage again in 2014, again with Mr. Cumming in the lead. This time, his initial Sally was actress Michelle Williams, who also was not known for her singing ability.
Now, the Roundabout production is touring the U. S. The sets, costumes, lighting, and sound recreate the New York designs as best as can be managed when moving from city to city as often as each week. The Mendes-Marshall staging has been recreated by BT McNicholl, who had two big, interrelated, problems: (1) no cabaret tables and (2) no Alan Cumming. It is this production that is playing the Civic Theatre this week, as presented by Broadway/San Diego.
Mr. McNichol solves the lack of cabaret tables by using the front rows of the theatre as a place for interacting with patrons. He can’t replace Mr. Cumming – no one could, really.
Randy Harrison, who is cast as the Master of Ceremonies, tries his best – and his best is pretty good. The former cast member of the cult television series Queer as Folk has the camp elements of the role down pat, and his stage acting chops carry him along quite nicely. But, he slinks, rather than slithers – and he’s far more butch than Mr. Cumming.
As Sally Bowles, Andrea Goss sports a Liza wig and a singing voice that can really belt the score. All of a sudden, Sally’s again the reason to see the show.
As I said, Cabaret keeps changing – it will never be the same.