The advertising reads “Willkommen Back” and Cabaret, one of Broadway’s legendary shows, is definitely back in a big way.
New York City has been peppered with revivals over the years, resulting in a Tony category in and of itself in 1994. But a revival of a revival of a revival? Which is what the current production of Cabaret is, currently in the nascent stages of its latest national tour, actually a 50th anniversary celebration of the famed Roundabout Theatre Company in New York and one that arrived in Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center Tuesday.
A few of us may have seen the original Hal Prince production with Ron Fields’ choreography in 1966. And many still recall Liza Minnelli’s 1972 tour de force performance in Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning film. Moreover, it illustrates, perhaps more than any other show, how changing tastes and values can alter a production.
It’s as if Cabaret has been aging like a fine wine, or should we say, a fine Weill. John Kander and Fred Ebb’s original score was, of course, inspired by the famed German composer and U.S. transplant, Kurt Weill, whose career spanned two world wars. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel, Goodbye to Berlin, the play itself centers around the Kit Kat Klub in the 1930’s during pre-Nazi Germany.
Where the original Cabaret is probably remembered for its scintillating production numbers, though, co-directors Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall saw a darker, richer, edgier approach for a play with music. Their first Broadway revival came about in 1998 and, in a rare move, they decided to revisit it again in 2014, to even greater effect, it appears, and yet another Tony-award winner for the resilient Roundabout.
Judging from assorted performances over the years, the national tour best conveys the balance of those turbulent ’30’s, when Berlin was a like a carousel, spinning faster and faster out of control. The audience entered to find the cast, aka the Kit Kat Klub Boys and Girls, seductively warming up onstage, a barometer of things to come.
The set was minimal, surrounded by a giant band of dressing room lights that periodically highlighted the story and song. Three doors, set on the lower level, served as exits and entrances for various scenes, with a few basic props added. The orchestra, mostly made up of the Kit Kat ensemble, was in full view on the second level.
They were representative of the current trend in musical theater, not only a triple threat (singer, actor, dancer), but a quadruple threat. They all played instruments (and very well), along with doing various parts, giving a cohesive feel to the play itself.
With the initial emphasis on choreography in previous productions, it was easy to be disappointed at first, since the choreography was constructed to convey the time period and atmosphere in Berlin. But these were people caught in a world about to explode and every detail of this Cabaret contributed to that. It wasn’t just seductive — it was lascivious. It was no-holds-barred. It was already tattered, falling apart.
The first act also seemed long, put it paid off in the end.
Even though Randy Harrison’s emcee toiled in the shadow of Alan Cumming’s landmark performances on Broadway in 1998 and 2014, he had a large onstage personality, enough to consume the vast expanse of the Benedum and invite the large opening night audience into his world.
However, Andrea Goss, a tiny waif of a Sally Bowles, was the surprise of the evening. The Bowles role presents some difficulty because she is not Liza Minnelli. She is a singer who just doesn’t have the vocal goods and that can become an issue when the primary emphasis of a Broadway show is entertainment.
It was obvious that Goss did have the goods, though. Despite her pint-sized frame, she grew into the role as the evening progressed. And when she emerged at the end, dressed in a plain black gown, to sing the title song, she seemed like a broken bird, not sure of her decision to remain in Berlin. There was some quavering and maybe a touch of raspiness. But it was brilliantly constructed dramatically, with just enough power to be the highlight of the show.
With the spare setting, it was up to the cast to created its own rich landscape. Lee Aaron Rosen (Clifford Bradshaw) was a great foil for Bowles, a bisexual who was swept up into a doomed love affair. And Mark Nelson (Herr Schultz), who was Jewish, and Shannon Cochran (Fraulein Schneider), who was not, spotlighted the issue of religious discrimination.
Cabaret can be so many things. It can be razzamatazz entertainment. It can be a star turn. Or it can be a tautly crafted look into a vortex of uncertainty.
This time it’s a real winner.