The Student Voice of Fordham Lincoln Center

The Observer

The Student Voice of Fordham Lincoln Center

The Observer

The Student Voice of Fordham Lincoln Center

The Observer


Come Hear The Music Play (All Around You)

‘Cabaret’ returns to Broadway in an energetic and immersive, if costly revival
The inside of the August Wilson Theatre was transformed to look like an actual German cabaret designed with table seating and multiple themed bars.

With its vaudeville-style musical numbers, combined with a story depicting the rise of Nazism in 1920s Berlin, and set against the backdrop of the decadent Kit Kat Club, the story of “Cabaret” seems to keep returning, just in different stripes. For a musical that debuted in 1966, “Cabaret, the Kander & Ebb musical staple, has seen many forms. Like its titular Emcee (famously originated by Joel Grey), this piece contorts itself back into relevance. Whether in the original Hal Prince helmed production, the 1972 film starring Liza Minelli, or the 1998 Sam Mendes production (which was last seen on Broadway in 2014), “Cabaret” is the show that never stays away for long.

Now, in this next “Cabaret” installment (with an added “at the Kit Kat Club” to its title), Rebecca Frecknall’s iteration has made its highly anticipated journey across the pond; it opened at the Playhouse Theatre in London in 2021, with all the grit and decadence of the text in hand. 

There is no denying that the core of this production is in its selling point; a radically redesigned theatre is transformed into the Kit Kat Club. Entering through the redesigned August Wilson Theatre, you go through the red and green neon-laden alley until you turn a corner and are given a sticker to cover your camera to “keep it in the Kit Kat Club.” Inside, multiple themed bars, table seating, free shots of schnapps, and an extensive 75-minute prologue await you; this production does not hide its shtick. 

Upon entry, patrons are surrounded by an entirely separate cast of actors, all playing music, dancing, and milling about the theatre. This new section of the experience works in favor of the production, as the glitzy atmosphere quickly seduces you into Weimar-era Berlin and prepares you for a party, making the party’s eventual demise all the more affecting. This exclusivity and event-style theatre-going experience has made this production one of the priciest tickets on Broadway (stageside table seating goes for upwards of $600, charcuterie board included). The production is capitalized for up to $26 million. 

Another major selling point for this production is its star: Oscar, Olivier and Tony winner Eddie Redmayne. Playing the elusive and iconic Emcee, Redmayne’s interpretation (first seen in London in 2021) goes on a journey from a child at a birthday party, to a demonic, skeletal demon, ending as a blonde-haired, beige-suited member of the Third Reich. This transformation across the lengthy musical is truly a sight to behold; each movement of the finger is precise and intentional. Ever-present and always running about the circular, in-the-round space, Redmayne’s performance is joyful yet terrifying. 

The Emcee’s numbers are consistently detached from the main narrative, so the in-plot songs are mostly given to Gayle Rankin’s Sally Bowles. A club-singer and sex worker, Bowles’ love affair with American writer Cliff (Ato Blankson-Wood), is the central plot device of the show. Rankin portrays Sally’s desperation with such confidence that at the musical’s title number, Rankin submits her entire being to the bleak ending of her characters’ narrative as Berlin falls around her. 

Julia Cheng’s choreography evokes sharp movement that flows well with the state of the world the production exists in: we are filled with color, diversity and individuality until we are stripped of it completely. 

Off to the side, in the apex of the narrative, the elderly Fraulein Schendier falls for Herr Schultz, brilliantly portrayed by Bebe Neuwirth and Steven Skybell, respectively. The fun and games of the first act are quickly halted by the first appearance of a swastika — a symbol that will always elicit a gasp. This is the nature of “Cabaret”; it holds up a mirror to reality and reminds audiences of those who look away, those who look closer, and those who simply run. 

“Cabaret” is a musical that has always been strong on its own; Kander & Ebb’s score is memorable and Joe Masteroff’s script is unusually tightly balanced with the music. With all this in mind, the question is, “how do we interpret it?” Mendes’ production famously ended with Alan Cumming’s Emcee slyly opening up his leather robe, only to reveal striped pajamas. Here, Frecknall portrays the Emcee not as a victim, but a perpetrator, conducting the machine that churns out the beige suits the cast ends the show in. The best part about this moment? None of it is in the script. It has always been a musical that is so incredibly open to interpretation that this is why productions keep returning. 

Frecknall stages this 160-minute marathon on Tom Scutt’s virtually unchanging set, but the strong design and staging do all the work to fill in the blanks. Scutt also did the costumes, replacing the traditional black-and-white vaudeville style with sparkles, frills and lace. Isabella Byrd’s lighting is traditionally theatrical, with a strong combination of vibrancy and coldness. Julia Cheng’s choreography evokes sharp movement that flows well with the state of the world the production exists in: we are filled with color, diversity and individuality until we are stripped of it completely. 

At my first viewing of this production in London in July 2023, the final moment left the theater rather silent, only applauding when the lights came back up. Here, in New York, it seems the party we entered remains in the audience’s bloodstream. Due to the ticket prices, nature of the experience and overall exclusivity of the production, it’s easy to get lost in the glitz of it all. This is where my experience most heavily deviated from the West End — the more intimate theater created a more chilling experience (perhaps with better German accents, whereas on Broadway, the chills last as long as the show does, until the whoops and cheers start). 

Perhaps this is merely the difference in audiences, as the production is virtually identical to the one in London, but these moments do not take away from what is otherwise a worthy addition to the catalog of “Cabaret’s” major productions. Where will the music play next? What will it sound like? It only seems our reality’s climate will dictate that.  

“Cabaret” is currently on an open-ended run at the Kit Kat Club at the August Wilson Theatre.

Reviewed from the 4/19/24 performance.

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ANDREW DEFRIN, Contributing Writer

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