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Willkommen to the Action

Theater review: In Sam Mendes' staging of 'Cabaret,' the audience is placed in the middle of decadent 1930 Berlin--to extraordinary effect.

March 20, 1998|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

NEW YORK — Thank God for the British. Their dedication to the classic American musical apparently knows no bounds. With Nicholas Hytner's multiracial "Carousel" now just a beautiful memory, director Sam Mendes has stepped forward, seized "Cabaret" by the heart and given it extraordinary new life.

To achieve this feat, Mendes has reclaimed the former Henry Miller's Theatre, for the past 20 years a dance club, and turned it into the raunchy nightspot of the show, the Kit Kat Klub, Berlin, 1930. Just below the theater's small, low stage, the audience sits at round cocktail tables topped with demure red-shaded lamps. In this tight space, the vampirish club performers and the audience are locked in an intimate embrace; we are not afforded any comfortable distance from the proceedings. A 1993 hit at London's Donmar Warehouse, this hypnotic new Roundabout Theatre production of "Cabaret" opened Thursday night.

In the original 1966 Broadway production, director Harold Prince famously hung a huge mirror over the stage, implicating the audience in the story. In the Mendes version, the gilt frame alone survives. It hangs crooked, threatening to come loose and hit someone below. Danger is palpable here, embodied most remarkably by the show's elfin Emcee, British actor Alan Cumming.

*

The Emcee's oiled black hair, parted in the middle, spills onto his forehead precisely as Hitler's did in emphatic moments. To complete the effect, Cumming occasionally places a finger where the Fuhrer's mustache would be and offers a sly little Heil salute. But unlike Hitler, Cumming has the most beguiling dimples and vivid eyes that sparkle almost as much as the pink rouge on his nipples. He has the disturbing air of a child who has somehow acquired knowledge of every debauchery known to man. Best-known in this country for supporting roles in films like "Circle of Friends" and "Emma," onstage Cumming exhibits an exotic, rare star charisma, skanky though it may be. Whenever he appears, you cannot look away.

"Cabaret" obliquely chronicles the encroaching Nazi presence as the show seesaws between the Kit Kat Klub and the goings-on at Fraulein Schneider's rooming house. There, an American writer named Clifford (John Benjamin Hickey) and a young English gold-digger named Sally Bowles (Natasha Richardson) set up housekeeping, in a place and time where all decent intentions can only be temporary.

The book, by Joe Masteroff, and score, by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), brilliantly transforms the vernacular of American popular song--the devil-may-care insouciance of lyrics like "So who cares, so what?" and "Life is a cabaret"--into impotence and desperate escapism. "Cabaret" is a look at human activity in the face of overpowering despair. Together, Mendes and co-director and choreographer Rob Marshall create a decadence so rank and authentic that you can almost smell its sour odor.

Accordingly, Richardson's Sally Bowles is more self-aware than the vulnerable kook immortalized by Liza Minnelli in the 1972 Bob Fosse film version. Richardson is a modest singer, in that sense closer to the Sally that Christopher Isherwood originally wrote about in "Berlin Stories." She sounds Dietrich-esque, husky and sometimes off-key. She is deeply glamorous, particularly when she sings "Maybe This Time," an atypical burst of hopefulness written for the film that's inserted awkwardly here smack in the middle of a scene. Wearing a slip, torn stockings and dirty hair, she dazzles simply by lifting her huge, wondrous eyes--lined in yesterday's stained makeup--tearfully to the theater's low balcony.

While Minnelli ripped into the title song as you would a show-stopper, Richardson sings it clenching the microphone stand for dear life--she knows every word in it is a pathetic lie.

Mendes adores the show's darkness and has absolutely no interest in Broadway razzle-dazzle. His finale unfolds in a series of bold directorial strokes that are meant to drum home every message in the show and then add on a few more. At times, Mendes overplays his hand. But his "Cabaret" is overall a fascinating and harrowing experience, and anyone who caught the deadly 1987 Broadway revival of this musical will know precisely what a miracle the director has wrought.

At the Klub, the actors also play all of the instruments in the band, which adds to the show's thrilling immediacy. As a Kit Kat performer and boardinghouse resident, Michele Pawk does the most convincing imitation of a heroin addict since "Sid and Nancy." She also plays a hilariously desultory accordion. Though her songs lack punch, Mary Louise Wilson ("Full Gallop") is excellent as Fraulein Schneider. As her suitor Herr Schultz, the lonely Jew in the play, Ron Rifkin expertly underplays his martyrdom. As Cliff, Hickey is too bland to be believable as an object of desire to both men and women at the Klub.

Taking its cue from the movie, this production uses bisexuality as a symptom of a general malaise. To underscore, the Emcee performs the naughty menage a trois number, "Three Ladies," behind a white curtain with a chorus girl and a chorus boy. There they pantomime an outrageous menu of sexual encounters; it's so completely debauched that you have to laugh. When the sheet is pulled to one side, there is the Emcee, smoking a cigarette and grinning at the audience, as if to say, "You know you love it."

For the conclusion, Mendes invents a last zinger, an image that ingeniously twists the symbolic status of Cumming's Emcee and turns him into the key to the secret of "Cabaret." But that will already be apparent to anyone fortunate enough to see this strange, raw and wondrous performance.

*

* "Cabaret," Kit Kat Klub, 124 W. 43rd St., (800) 334-8457, (800) 223-7565.

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