NEW YORK (AP) — Barely sneaking in under the Tony Award nomination deadline this season is a dear old friend to Broadway, the decadent “Cabaret.” The only appropriate salutation is: willkommen.
Not a revival so much as a revival of a revival, this “Cabaret” – again produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company – opened Thursday night, with only hours to spare before its eligibility expired. Whatever it’s called, it’s as thrilling as ever, a marvel of staging that hasn’t lost its punch.
If it looks a lot like the version that ran from 1998-2004, that’s understandable: Alan Cumming is back in his Tony Award-winning role as Emcee and director Sam Mendes and co-director and choreographer Rob Marshall are again pulling the strings on this show about life in pre-World War II Berlin. Orchestrations and costumes – what little there are – also are the same.
Even its old home at Studio 54 has reverted to set designer Robert Brill’s clever use of tiny nightclub tables on the theater’s main floor, a nod to the original revival’s stab at immersive theater. The score, by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, is as stirring as ever.
One big change is the woman in the bob: Michelle Williams makes her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles and she does an excellent job, playing both scared and daffy superbly and singing with real heart. It’s a role made famous in the 1972 film version by Liza Minnelli and in the last Broadway revival by Natasha Richardson.
Williams starts out a little tentatively but soon roars into the role and her version of the title song has a wrenching, dead-eyed quality that hauntingly undercuts its light lyrics. (Alas, Bill Heck, as her ambivalent, bisexual lover, sometimes lacks his co-star’s nuances.)
Cumming is as lascivious as ever – more playful than Joel Grey-scary in the film version – and once more bares his backside, tattooed with a red swastika, to the audience. But he has some competition as the best sex-obsessed, German transvestite singer onstage this year: He and Neil Patrick Harris, starring nearby in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” would make an interesting double bill.
The addition of Linda Emond as the landlady Fraulein Schneider and Danny Burstein as her Jewish suitor Herr Schultz are strokes of casting genius. These two veterans are touching as star-crossed lovers fearful in later life of what’s happening around them. Aaron Krohn as the seemingly friendly Ernst radiates dread brilliantly, while Gayle Rankin as Fraulein Kost is funny until she’s lethal, turning on a dime.
But the real star is the way the show has been put together so cleverly, from the way the Nazi presence insinuates its way slowly into the musical to the intimidating staging of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and the funny-until-horrific “If You Could See Her,” featuring the Emcee and a gorilla. Mendes and Marshall can also be blissfully fun just with pineapples.
The transformation of the orchestra seats into the nightclub Kit Kat Klub includes cocktail waitresses and a bar menu. If you want to be naughty, sip a Mein Herr cocktail (beer and honey liquor) or be even naughtier and munch on a Bavarian pretzel. Every detail has been thought out here. Even the lights on the small tables are synched with the action.
The talented band on a second level – and outfitted as scantily as the ensemble – makes full use of the staircases and catwalks, and the dancing is spirited and sexy while being performed by men and women who often seem as numb as ragdolls with vacant eyes.
So, yes, not much is new here. But great things don’t always need them. If you’re wondering whether to go, why not take the advice of Sally? “What good is sitting alone in your room?” she sings. “Come hear the music play.”