The In-Person UK Experience: West End’s Cabaret
“Welcome to Berlin,” we are told, and quite accurately in this deliciously baked wedding cake reinvention of this iconic musical. Expertly crafted together by director Rebecca Frecknall (NYTW’s Sanctuary City), the overall icing effect of the new staging of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club is utter magnificence, pulling us in completely to the idealistic framework of that cultural and historical complication. The energy is sublime. Divine decadence, one might say, with its creative eye wide open in amazement with a sneaky intelligence, gifting us with a production that easily soars into the revival-strewn atmosphere with a stunning shining force. I was a bit worried, I must admit, as I sat neatly in the most cleverly redesigned theatre for a revival of one of my all-time favorites. We are told quite insistently, to the point where they placed a sticker over my phone’s camera lens, that what happens inside the Kit Kat Club, aka the completely redesigned Playhouse Theatre right there, down by the Thames, needs to be only seen, not shared through social media. No pictures. No videos allowed. All had to remain a secret, for the ones who got into this sold-out event. The curiosity created was infectious, I must say. Making us all wonder what was inside those doors. What exactly would they have in store for us?
Inside that fringe-edged red-lit environment, oozing of sexual adventurism and voyeurism, the pre-show gestulations started from the moment you drank down your shot at the bottom of the stairs. The whole space, I’ve been told, has been reconfigured, and we see it as soon as we get ushered in to our assigned table and seats. Carousing around the carefully crafted space, the preshow begins in earnest, energizing the space as the clock ticks towards the show’s beginning. It feels like they want to shock us, titillate us, excite us, but I must admit the sensual festivities pales somewhat to the more dynamic preshow delivered by Broadway’s Moulin Rouge! The Musical. The corseted energy feels a bit forced and somewhat bland visually, causing an insecurity to rise up within, making me wonder if this was a signal of what is to come, but I couldn’t be more mistaken. Maybe, I thought later, this monotone creation was a trick, to lull us into complacency. Because, without a doubt, the beginning, and really, the whole show, is the furthest thing you can imagine from bland or forced. It’s epic and organic, stirring up the discomfort and edginess of that particular time and place in history with a drizzling of an intelligence that is divinely decadent and fascinatingly captivating.
Revolving upwards from down below like an ornament on a multi-tiered birthday cake, Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl“; Broadway/Donmar’s Red), the star attraction, conducts the entrance with a solid drum roll. It’s a spectacular engagement, with the dramatic reveal of the shrouded ladies making any hesitation within vanish in an instant. This magnificently crafted re-conceived confection by the uber-talented Tom Scutt (Broadway’s King Charles III) is everything one could hope for. With the audience wrapped precisely and intimately around its small bare circular stage finger, Redmayne as the ever-elusive and elastic Emcee drives forth a dycotomy that unearths an electric appeal under his wide secretive grin and his pointed birthday hat. His performance hits strong and hard, unpacking layers upon layers of devilish glee at every turn of the screw. The tense engagement is complex and enticing, rotating out with athletic force a crew of magnificently clad gender-non-specific dancers, knowing with all confidence that we are roped and tied in completely.
Not giving one inch over to Liza Minnelli’s iconic portrayal in Bob Fossie’s masterpiece film version, the astounding Jessie Buckley (NT’s Romeo and Juliet) rivals all as the damaged and desperate Sally digging in deep, never letting the tension of the moment flag. It’s an edgy portrayal, void of any sentimental connection but brimming with a raw, and almost volatile concoction. Her “Maybe This Time”, pushed to the forefront by musical director Jennifer Whyte’s tight use of her seven-piece band, gives us a much-needed glimpse inside the impatient Sally, which only makes her ferocious “Cabaret” more devastating, and insightful to the pain and disengagement she feels towards Clifford. It’s ruthless almost, her rendition, and is only enhanced by the Emcee’s physical and emotional response. Her performance shines bright like a shattered broken star, filled with anger, pain, and some aspect of sadness. It is as unique and electric as Redmayne’s highly stylized Emcee that is also both enticing and dangerous. The two, along with the rest of the solidly connected cast (Anna-Jane Casey, Josh Andrews, Emily Benjamin, Sally Frith, Matthew Gent, Emma Louise Jones, Ela Lisondra, Theo Maddix, Chris O’Mara, Daniel Perry, Andre Refig, Christopher Tendai, Bethany Terry, Lillie-Pearl Wildman, and Sophie Maria Wojna), rounds around the space, presenting this hypnotic and complex treat with an expertise boardering on tawdry delciousness, something I thought the pre-show was lacking.
Frecknall’s direction is to captivate, slicing into the multi-layed cake in order to serve us up every delicious slice and crumb of Joe Masteroff’s devious book and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s magnificent score. The final product delivers with an inventiveness that is both curious and demanding all at the same time. The circular energy insinuates itself within like that charming smuggler, Ernst, perfectly portrayed by Stewart Clarke (Playhouse’s Fiddler), bringing in illegal Paris treats for his Berlin customers. We recognize the danger, but are too smitten to withdrawal. The inspiration of every simple structure, including all the ingenious props laid out before us that are displayed within this stellar and detailed deconstruction, vibrates the piece forward with a historic energy. It hits hard, particularly when Germany’s history stamps its way into the circle. I don’t recall ever being moved to tears by any staged rendition of Cabaret, – well, maybe the first time I watched the film on my mother’s bedroom television one night when I didn’t feel well – and I’m not sure if it was the jet-lag or not, having just landed in London that morning, but they certainly came rolling down my cheek that evening in London. The historic layer crashes in to this Cabaret with an emotional force to be reconned with, particularly when it becomes clear that “Tommorrow Belongs to..” them, and not to the glorious Fräulein Schneider, gorgeously portrayed by Liza Sadovy (Donmar’s Company) and her grocer, Herr Schultz, touchingly played by the wonderful Elliot Levey (NT’s His Dark Materials). Their engagement literally “Couldn’t Please Me More.”
That Goodbye to Berlin by Isherwood that inspired John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera, which in turn, brought forth this brilliant musical, plays out the historic details exquisitely. Sadovy rises to the occasion at every moment given, particularly when she destroys all with her simple and shockingly emotional “What Would You Do.” It slaps hard making me sit back in my seat as the sting and the sadness tingled for a bit of time on my cheek. Julia Cheng’s monstrously good choreography finds all the aspects of that Berlin iconography and tightens it in and around that small exquisite stage. It’s an impressive adventure in the way it shines with a seedy ravishness, heightened by Isabella Byrd’s seductive turntable lighting. The only aspect that didn’t register as completely intoxicating was Omari Douglas (Donmar’s Constellations) as the Christopher Isherwood stand-in, Clifford, but I must admit, that standing next to Buckley who is giving us one of the most ferociously complicated Sally, his straight man/gay man appeal isn’t as interesting or as compelling.
I couldn’t help but notice as this magnificent revival rotated forward, the young gentleman sitting beside me in that redefined space. His reactions and his youth made me ask at the interval if he had ever seen this show before, thinking, quite honestly, that he must have seen the film, and I was curious his take on it all, as the film and the stage show are quite the different beasts. He was a young Italian actor, it turns out, fresh out of university with a degree in theatre, and on a graduation holiday gifted to him by his parents. He had never seen the film, which I must admit I was a bit shocked, nor the stage show, but all I could think was how lucky he was. What a completely stunning entry into this wisely crafted poverty-stricken Weimar Republic world, where a musical can be both wildly entertaining, yet also historically and emotionally devastating. You could tell that he would be forever changed after this wonderfully electric night, singing the praises of exactly why “Life is a Cabaret, old chum. Come to the Cabaret.” And you really should, if you can. It will be a night you won’t forget.