Arts and Entertainment | Theater

‘Cabaret’: Cumming, Williams standouts in revival of showy classic

Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54 has been revamped to look like a sordid—but sumptuous—1930s-era Berlin nightclub for its revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s classic musical “Cabaret.” The show, with its all-star cast, manages to entertain as much, if not more, than if it were actually a pre-war cabaret show. 

Set in Weimar Germany from 1929-30, “Cabaret” is based on Christopher Isherwood’s semiautobiographical novel, “Goodbye to Berlin.” The musical centers on the relationship between British cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Michelle Williams, in her Broadway debut)—a character modeled after the actress and writer Jean Ross, whom Isherwood met in the German capital—and American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Bill Heck). At the center of the world they inhabit is the flamboyant, enigmatic Master of Ceremonies (Alan Cumming), who presides over the nightly debauchery at Sally’s workplace—the steamy Kit Kat Klub. 

While much of the action is situated at the club, the musical’s subplot revolves around the blossoming romance between Fräulein Schneider (a stern, but not matronly Linda Emond), who owns the boardinghouse where Cliff is staying, and a Jewish fruit vendor named Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein). Just like the produce he sells, their saccharine relationship is fated to go sour with the rise of Nazism on the horizon. The boardinghouse is also home to the prostitute Fräulein Kost (Gayle Rankin), a source of comic relief until her Nazi tendencies are aired by Cliff’s fascist English student, Ernst Ludwig (Aaron Krohn). 

When it comes to the Roundabout’s production, history is not only the engine driving the source material. Cumming first collaborated with co-director Sam Mendes in 1993 as the Emcee in Mendes’ London revival at Donmar Warehouse. He reprised the part in the Broadway transfer of the same production at Studio 54. In 1998, Cumming won a Tony for the role. 

Cumming owns the Emcee’s physicality from the moment he saunters onstage, robed in costume designer William Ivey Long’s deliciously grungy getup—a long black trench coat, punctuated by slicked-back hair and dark eye makeup. The coat doesn’t stay on for long, as he seductively pulls it off during the show’s infectious, multilingual opening number, “Willkommen,” to reveal tight black pants and suspenders that strapped his bare chest and wrapped around his crotch. And welcome us he does, joined by the beautiful girls and boys of the Kit Kat Klub. 

Among the nightclub performers was Williams, working a blonde bob, a pink boa, and a flapper-chic dress. Although blonde-haired, boozed-up women of infamy are familiar territory for the Oscar-nominated actress, who starred as Marilyn Monroe in the 2011 film “My Week with Marilyn,” the transition from screen to stage is not often a smooth one—especially without much prior knowledge of an actor’s singing ability. Posing on an oversized chair as she warns would-be tattletales not to “tell Mama” about her profession, Williams looks nervous—spotlighted, but not quite sure how to act at the center of attention. Yet as she embraces Sally’s vitriol, she loses the doll-like rigidity and grapples with the darkness beneath her starlet-to-be veneer. 

Two of the musical’s showstoppers, both of which have become standards in the canon of musical theater, belong to Sally. Williams’ rendition of the charged ballad “Maybe This Time” was far from disappointing. Her interpretation was more soulful than electric, but pleasantly so, underscored by an intimately delicate, haunting cadence as she croons her hopes for the future into an upright microphone. 

But it was Williams’ performance of the irony-laden “Cabaret”—which was packed with the gall that “Maybe This Time” lacked—that assuaged any doubts that Williams would stumble into the “big name, no talent” pitfall that some Hollywood actors face on Broadway. 

As Sally’s bisexual lover Cliff, Heck doesn’t carry the show—but he also doesn’t have to. His portrayal of Cliff—which runs on a fluctuating scale of brashness and naïveté—is commanding. Ultimately, in spite of his leading-man looks and dulcet tones, the musical’s plot, a meta-narrative about creation in a world on the brink of decay, outshines the man writing the story. 

On the contrary, Cumming’s Emcee—despite his shadowy demeanor—doesn’t leave the action behind, even when he is perched behind an oversized, glitzy picture frame that hangs above the stage in between his scenes. When he leaves his lookout spot and returns to the stage, his trench coat concealing a new and unexpected guise—a form-fitting black dress, a concentration camp uniform—it is a joy to watch him again, even though he, like Isherwood’s story, never quite fades away.

Cabaret runs through Jan. 4, 2015 at Studio 54, 254 West 54th St. Tickets start at $47.

zoe.miller@columbiaspectator.com | @zoe_m_miller

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