The Kit Kat boys are a bit buffer, the girls are a lot less bruised, and the old Emcee has returned to audition for the replacement star of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
Those are the minor changes Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall have made in their current staging of “Cabaret,” which ran for six years (1998-2004) at the Roundabout Theatre Company and reopened Thursday at Studio 54. The beauty of their strong, durable concept is that it allowed myriad casts to come and go without radically affecting the brilliance of Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s show within a show. Audiences came to see the stylish, decadent goings-on at the Kit Kat Klub regardless of who played Sally Bowles or the Emcee.
With this 2014 “Cabaret,” audiences will come to see Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, and that’s the big change with Mendes and Marshall’s remounting. Remember boarding-house proprietor Schneider and fruit seller Schultz, that old couple who unwisely got cut from the 1972 movie version, to be replaced by those innocuous youngsters Marisa Berenson and Fritz Wepper?
At Studio 54, Linda Emond and Danny Burstein take the middle-aged Schneider and Schultz and turn them into mature star-crossed lovers whose hearts beat more passionately than any teenagers’ ever could. It’s love, not just lust, and it’s crushing when the Nazis force this Fraulein to survive rather than marry her Jewish fiance.
The other doomed couple in “Cabaret,” of course, is the much younger Sally Bowles and Clifford Bradshaw. Unlike Schneider and Schultz, they never really spark in the bedroom. Maybe they’re not even in love. But it usually helps if Clifford shows some fascination, even mild interest, in Sally’s green fingernails and bizarre cures for a hangover. Bill Heck’s Clifford is an all-American jock, which makes the gusto of his first Kit Kat boy kiss especially tantalizing. But with Sally, he never connects, not even as a mildly curious student in the care of Berlin’s least responsible tour guide.
Michelle Williams also begins well, as the third-rate chanteuse who will never graduate from the Kit Kat Klub. Gone is the Louise Brooks bob. Williams sports a bouncy Giulietta Masina peroxide job, and her first number, “Don’t Tell Mama,” is strictly geared for the pedophiles in the Klub. One thing is clear: This Sally will do anything to succeed, and as cookies go she’s too tough to crack in the arms of any man, gay or straight. In her farewell to Clifford, she asks him to dedicate his book to her. Is she being sentimental? No, it’s Sally’s last shot at being famous, even if it’s just an inscription. Still, who can’t feel this couple’s pain when they break up? Not sharing a room is so much more expensive.
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Alan Cumming is back in the role that Joel Grey made famous. Despite several returns to the Emcee, Grey always remained a nasty little imp. Cumming, on the other hand, is now giving a self-referential performance that softens the character considerably. Is this master of ceremony auditioning for one of Neil Patrick Harris’s host spots on a TV awards show? Or his replacement in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”? In a way it makes sense. The Kit Kat Klub is a bit glitzier than at the turn of the millennium. They’ve even splurged on a new entrance for the Emcee in act two. He descends from the flies just like Harris does in “Hedwig.” But Cumming should know better. In the theater, you never compete with a blonde.