Grumbling was heard when the Sam Mendes/Rob Marshall production of Cabaret, starring Michelle Williams, was announced for 2014 by the Roundabout Theatre Company. This revival of the 1966 Kander and Ebb musical had closed only a decade ago: was it already time for the decadent denizens of Weimar to make their return to the temple of 1970s hedonism, Studio 54? If the answer is not a triumphant yes – every actor in the new iteration is not ideal – then the answer is certainly, in a just-completed Broadway season without a knockout new musical, a very welcome yes.
As the emcee, Alan Cumming may have put on a kilo or two since his initial forays in London, two decades ago, but the delight he takes in fornicating with his colleagues at the Kit Kat Club is as joyous as ever: he persuades us that it was not sexual licence that led to the Nazis but the Nazis’ fear of freedom that led to the camps. And that is a crucial distinction: Mendes’ conception of the story is as Holocaust-heavy as any I’ve ever seen. Too preachy, some thought, when the staging premiered in New York in 1998.
Not so. The riotous fun of the Kit Kat boys and girls is firmly in place, and the joy they all take in playing their instruments is infectious. We need such relief as the book scenes feel a little plodding.
The American writer Cliff, interpreted by the handsome Bill Heck, does not seem to be enjoying his party-hearty existence in Berlin; mostly, he must endure the whining of Sally Bowles, the good-time English girl played here by Williams.
Parallel to this duo is an older couple: Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit merchant given touching charm by Danny Burstein, and Fräulein Schneider, who runs the building in which Cliff boards and who is portrayed by Linda Emond. You need not be haunted by recordings of Lotte Lenya, who originated the role and who was of course married to Kurt Weill, an obvious inspiration (with Brecht) for Cabaret, to feel Emond a little less than just-so. She is powerful, yet with a shade too much sentimentality.
Williams plays Sally as a British baby doll. She sings well but not too well. She makes no Liza Minnelli-type pleas for our sympathy. Instead, Williams offers intense desperation. She holds on to the microphone stand as if aware into just what abyss she will spin if she lets go.
Get alerts on Sam Mendes when a new story is published