Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret, radically re-imagined by Sam Mendes, has arrived at the Segerstrom Center For The Performing Arts to thrill and devastate audiences with its vision of 1930s Berlin at its darkest and most decadent.
Based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and John Van Druten’s I Am A Camera, Joe Masteroff’s book centers on a visiting American writer’s love affair with an expatriate English night club entertainer as Nazism takes its hold in pre-WWII Germany.
It’s on a Berlin-bound train that Isherwood alter-ego Clifford Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley) makes the acquaintance of Ernst Ludwig (Patrick Vaill), the outgoing Berliner who will introduce him to lodgings run by seen-it-all Fraulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran) and, more importantly, to Berlin’s pansexual nightlife.
Kit Kat Club star Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss) quickly finds herself taken by the handsome American, and before you know it, the two expats have become live-in lovers, an arrangement that may come as as much of a surprise to Cliff as it does to Kit Kat Boy Bobby (Leeds Hill), his onetime lover.
The deeper Sally and Cliff’s intimate coupling gets, the deeper grows Germany’s infatuation with Hitler, inspiring Cliff to have second thoughts about earning extra Deutschemarks as an amateur courier for Ernst.
Fraulein Schneider too begins to think twice about marrying her Jewish suitor, greengrocer Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson), who had previously won her heart with a pineapple, and Berlin, which had seemed to Cliff such a perfect antidote to staid old England, now shows itself to be a considerably more dangerous place to call home-away-from-home.
Scenic designer Robert Brill, costume designer William Ivey Long, lighting designers Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari, hair and wig designer Paul Huntley, and sound designer Keith Caggian give us a Berlin not of glamour and glitz but one of darkness and depravity, a German Expressionist vision of lingerie-&-leather-garbed Kit Kat Girl-&-Boys, an equally dissolute-looking Sally, and a heavily lipsticked, eye-shadowed, torso-flaunting Master Of Ceremonies (Randy Harrison). (Think Joel Gray’s Emcee after years of heroin, cocaine, and booze.)
All but Mendes’s Cabaret leads do double-duty in its sensational upstairs orchestra of observers/participants, and that includes Kit Kat Girl sizzlers swing Kelsey Beckert (Lulu), Sarah Bishop (Helga), Margaret Dudasik (Texas), Alison Ewing (a rich-voiced Fritzie and a fiery Fräulein Kost), Aisling Halpin (Frenchie, Gorilla), and Samantha Shafer (Rosie), and Kit Kat Boy hotties Ryan DeNardo (Hans, Rudy), dance captain Hill, Andrew Hubacher (Victor), and Tommy McDowell (Herman, Customs Official, Max), along with swings Lori Eure, Joey Khoury, and Steven Wenslawski.
Still, it wouldn’t be a powerhouse Cabaret without powerhouse stars, and this Cabaret is powerhouse all the way.
LGBT theatergoers may line up to see Queer As Folk twink Justin all grown-up, but they will stand up and cheer Harrison’s tour-de-force sleezy-meets-seductive Emcee, boyishness gone bad in the best of ways, with pipes to match Broadway’s best.
As for the iconic Sally Bowles, whatever the fabulous Goss lacks in name-power next to the most recent New York revival’s Michelle Williams, Emma Stone, and Sienna Miller, she more than makes up for in acting/singing chops and a shattering transformation from ravishing to ravaged.
Though the 1998/2014 revivals give Cliff of only a few brief song snipets, leading-man handsome Eakeley acts the hell out of the part, and the terrific Vaill makes for an appealing, sexually fluid Ernst.
B-story couple Cochran and Nelson not only charm us with their late-in-life romance over tropical fruit in “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married,” their relationship puts a personal face on the impending Holocaust. (The divine Cochran gets the added gift of Kander & Ebb’s “So What?” and “What Would You Do?”, both of them powerfully, movingly performed.)
National Tour director BT McNicholl does electric work of his own, associate choreographer Cynthia Onrubia recreating revival co-director/choreographer Rob Marshall’s red-hot dance numbers to perfection. Musical director Robert Cookman conducts and plays piano in Cabaret’s Kit Kat-tastic ban, joined by associate musical director Benet Braun and Bobby Brennan, Preston Haining, and Taurus Lovely.
Musical supervision and vocal arrangements are by Patrick Vaccariello. John M. Atherlay is stage manager.
I’ve seen nearly a dozen Cabarets since the early 1990s, some of them borderline Mendes, some of them with unique directorial visions, but this was my very first time seeing what more than three thousand Broadway audiences have thrilled to since the revival’s 1998 New York debut. I now know what all the shouting (and the Tonys) have been about.
Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
August 9, 2016
Photos: Joan Marcus