Friday, April 25, 2014

Cabaret: Willkommen Back, But Should We Care?

Alan Cumming and Cast of 'Cabaret'
Photo by Joan Marcus

“You cannot make a revolution with silk gloves.”

This quote, attributed to Josef Stalin, is a good way of explaining why the current revival of the 1998 production of Kander and Ebb’s iconic musical Cabaret—which takes place, after all, in Berlin in the midst of the rise of Nazism—fails to even remotely perturb its audience. And that, I think, is a problem. 

Case in point.  As the Emcee, Alan Cumming invites a couple of members of the audience onstage to dance with him.  At the performance I attended, the following conversation took place:

            Emcee to audience member:  What’s your name?
            Woman:  Laurie.
            Emcee:  Hi, Laurie.
            Woman:  Hi, Alan. 

Of course, Mr. Cumming is a pro. Though clearly taken aback at the breaking of the mood, he covered up by asserting that he was not “Alan,” whoever that is, but the emcee at the Kit Kat Klub.  The audience laughed, and the show went on.

Silk gloves. 

So my question is, why go through all the trouble of reconfiguring the seating so as to simulate the milieu of the decadent club and then offer up a show that is so incredibly tame? By comparison, the Nazis in The Sound of Music are more disturbing. 

Before I go further, let me explain that I did not see the previous incarnation of this production—though I did see the 1966 original and, of course, the memorable movie with Joel Grey repeating his performance as the Emcee and Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles. My understanding, however, is that what is now on view at Studio 54 cleaves closely to the 1998 Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall staging, so forgive me if I am raising questions about points I very well might have brought up a decade-and-a-half ago. 

I’m not suggesting that the initial interpretation of the role is sacrosanct. But one thing I liked about it is that the Emcee seemed not to be human, but the kind of being that might have been conjured up by Ray Bradbury for the carnival of lost souls in his shiver-inducing novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Among such company, the Kit Kat Klub becomes a scary place to visit. We risk losing our own souls if we are not very careful—for instance, by getting caught up in the song “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” and being hit in the face with its final anti-Semitic line.  That moment is truly disconcerting, not because it offends (although it does), but because it forces us into being complicit.     

The Emcee should be our amoral guide through the hell that is taking shape all around us—an opportunist willing to go in whichever direction the wind happens to be blowing.

But with this production, he is now an Everyman, clearly pretending to be naughty, repeating his same old shtick night after night (“Ladies…and gennlemen”) and someone we can picture removing his makeup and living a very ordinary life at the end of the performance. This Kit Kat Klub is no more scary than La Cage Aux Folles.   

Towards the end of the evening, as the Emcee becomes less steady, we are perhaps meant to identify with him, to share his sense of entrapment until the final image that is supposed to make us gasp.  The trouble is, with this reconceptualization no one has bothered to give the Emcee a backstory or any personality at all other than that of the ever-present overseer.  How are we to empathize with him when we don’t get to know anything about him? How much more effective would that final scene be if it were Herr Schultz we see in the hands of the Nazis? 

So, like the reporter at Ford’s Theater interviewing Mary Todd Lincoln right after her husband was shot, you might want to know “aside from that, what did you think of the play?” 

The songs are grand, of course, including those interpolated from the film, and Mr. Cumming and the rest of the Kit Kat Klub crew of performers and musicians are in solid form.  If some of their movements seem jaded and rote (especially in the opening number), that actually is appropriate and in character. It’s easy to imagine that the Emcee and his colleagues have been performing the same bits forever, so that they have become routine for them. 

As for the rest of the cast, only Aaron Krohn as Ernst and Gayle Rankin as Fräulein Kost, both of them Nazi sympathizers, capture the spirit of their roles. Linda Emond and Danny Burstein are fine as the middle aged couple who are drawn together out of mutual loneliness and a certain degree of affection, though their connection as a couple remains so tenuous that, frankly, it is no great loss when it falls apart. 

Much the same could be said of Bill Heck as Cliff, present as an observer of the scene, and Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles—a character who has been raised to a level of great significance by Liza Minnelli’s take on her but who seems to be just another lost and unaware wanderer. Neither the characters nor the actors portraying them in this production add much to the sketchiness of their roles, so that they seem to be cut from the same mold as Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. 

In the end, all of them are types rather than flesh and blood people that you can care much about. You could say that Cliff represents America as it blandly watched the rise of the Nazi state; that Sally represents the self-absorbed British; that Fräulein Schneider represents the ordinary German people who cast a blind eye and declared that they were helpless to do anything about politics; that Herr Schultz represents the German Jews who rationalized themselves into Concentration Camps; and that the Emcee represents the general corruption of the times.  

It all makes for a nice thesis, but, as Ms. Edmond’s character Fräulein Schneider sings early in the show, “It will all go on if we’re here or not. So who cares?  So what?” 

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