Sometimes you can “get” and even appreciate what a production is trying to do with its material and still leave the theater rather bored and disappointed. The Roundabout Theatre‘s revival of a revival of the 1966 musical “Cabaret” promised to be much more adult and raunchy than the iconic movie version starring Liza Minnelli — and, whoa, was it ever — but instead of being scintillating, it just heightened the depressiveness of the subject matter.
And yes, it’s really depressing. The musical, brought to town by PNC Broadway in Louisville, centers around the seedy Kit Kat Club and the boarding house of Fraulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran) in pre-WWII Berlin. The promise of the rise of the Nazis doesn’t get explicitly introduced until well into the play, but as long as you have a basic grasp of history, you know it’s there throughout.
While the song promises that “everything is beautiful” there, the Kit Kat Club of this production decidedly is not. There’s no attempt at faux glamour or true sensuality. In a sense, this cabaret club is probably more true-to-life than in other productions. But going for “realistic” seems to be the detriment of a story that is neither linear nor character-driven.
American novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Lee Aaron Rosen) has arrived in Berlin after not finding his muse in Paris. He’s introduced to the Kit Kat Club by his train seatmate, a smuggler named Ernst Ludwig (Ned Noyes), who finds him lodging at Schneider’s boarding house.
The Kit Kat Girls glower as they move through the show in their shabby and loose flesh-toned lingerie. Despite being introduced as individuals, they go on to have no distinct personalities. The choreography is intentionally asynchronous — after all, in the real world, dancers at this kind of club wouldn’t exactly be the Rockettes.
To call much of the choreography “vulgar” makes me sound like I was clutching my pearls, but really there is no better word for it. Just about every sex act you can imagine was pantomimed on stage early in Act 1 between the Emcee (Randy Harrison) and the Kit Kat Girls. If you go see “Cabaret,” leave your mamaw and impressionable children at home. There were quite a few empty seats during Act 2.
Harrison plays the fluid puppet-master of an Emcee in the grotesque, menacing style of Broadway’s Alan Cumming, and he is a presence on stage. Berlin is seductive and decadent as the rise of Hitler approaches, and Harrison seems to be Berlin embodied.
Only British Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss), the star act, soon to be unseated at the Kit Kat Club, seems to at least grasp at some of the glamour in the promise of the club with her fur coat and her guzzling gin. Goss as Bowles is a standout. She’s the vapid party girl who refuses to read the news or acknowledge the complexity of the times.
Goss’ rendition of the title song is the biggest takeaway of the night. Instead of the triumphant anthem that was Minnelli’s “Cabaret,” Goss’ version is wailed and sobbed by the waif-like chanteuse.
The subplot of the romance between Schneider and her Jewish boarder begins as the most human of all the stories, but it ends abruptly and breezily.
The Robert Brill-designed two-tier set puts the massive Kit Kat Band atop the action. They’re phenomenal — easily the most consistently great part of the show. However, the sound was off last night and the horns frequently drowned out the singers. Between the mix being off and the German-ish accents of many of the singers, it was often hard to understand the songs.
I definitely can envision a version of “Cabaret” I would like (I’ve never seen the musical before or the movie), but this wasn’t it. Besides the technical issues, the raunch felt very Miley Cyrus-ish — meant to shock but in a childish way with lots of tongues and grabbing of crotches and breasts. The slow transition from Cliff’s story to the larger one of the rise of the Nazis and its impact on the Jewish and homosexual characters leaves this musical — which could be highly political — neither political nor particularly entertaining.