Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Perfectly Wonderful: Ribald, Rousing and Grimly Foreboding 'Cabaret' Dazzles on Tour -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

National Tour
The PrivateBank Theatre, Chicago
(formerly the Bank of America, LaSalle Bank and Shubert Theatre)
Thru February 21

First staged 50 years ago, Cabaret stands as one of the greatest musicals ever created.

With the caveat that it has pretty regularly been re-created.

Or at least heavily tinkered with.

Based on John Van Druten's 1951 play, I Am a Camera, which was adapted from the short novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood, Cabaret was a big success upon composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb and book writer Joe Masteroff bringing it to Broadway in late 1966.

The original production won several Tony Awards including Best New Musical, ran for 3 years, toured extensively and went to London.

Yet while the 1972 movie version of Cabaret was also very successful--earning 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director (Bob Fosse), Best Actress (Liza Minelli) and Best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey, reprising his Broadway role as the Emcee, for which he won a Tony)--it significantly changed the plot, several of the characters and retained just six songs from the stage version while introducing three others.

Subsequent stage revivals utilized various song combinations, most notably the 1998 Broadway production directed by Sam Mendes and starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee and Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles.

A personalized signed photo of Teri Hatcher
from the 1999 National Tour of Cabaret
Highly acclaimed as something of a reinvention--although derived from a Mendes/Cumming London production in 1993--this revival included the three stellar Kander & Ebb songs introduced in the movie ("Mein Herr," "Maybe This Time" and "Money"), won four Tony Awards and ran on Broadway for 6 years, with numerous high-profile cast changes.

I did not get to it during this Broadway run, but the 1999 National Tour based on it changed my life.

At the age of 30, I had attended just a handful of live theatrical performances in my adult life before going to the Shubert Theatre--then its official name--on June 15, 1999 to see Cabaret, starring Teri Hatcher as Sally Bowles.

At that point, it had been a couple years since Lois & Clark had ended, and over five before Desperate Housewives debuted, so Hatcher wasn't a huge star, but well-known for her beauty. I can't deny this helped inspire me to check out Cabaret, which I found both real and spectacular (a Seinfeld reference I won't explain further).

I went back to see it the following month--along with Hatcher, Norbert Leo Butz and his understudy Jon Peterson were terrific as the Emcee--and since then I've seen almost 1,000 theatrical performances.

Thus I refer to seeing Cabaret in 1999 as my "Sandy Koufax moment," which I explained at the beginning of this 2013 review of a local production. And, as shown above, Teri Hatcher was kind enough to respond to my request for an autographed photo during the run in Chicago.

And hence, not only is the 1998 Broadway revival version of Cabaret the rendition I most know and love--thanks too to the Cast Recording--but one that holds much sentimental value.

So although I've seen stellar local productions of Cabaret, any that didn't include "Money" (makes the world go 'round) or "Maybe This Time" intrinsically had a strike against them, even if largely replicating the 1966 version that was great in the first place. (Beyond the songlist, the various stage productions haven't deviated from the original anywhere near the extent of the movie, in terms of the characters and basic scenarios.)

Technically, the National Tour production of Cabaret now playing in Chicago, for a rather short run, is based on the 2014 Broadway production. But that was essentially a re-revival of the 1998 version, with Alan Cumming back as the Emcee under the direction of Mendes and co-director/choreographer Rob Marshall.

In late March last year, I went to New York and saw the second-to-last show of the Cabaret re-revival--with Cumming, and Sienna Miller as Sally Bowles, following Michelle Williams and Emma Stone having played the role--and absolutely loved it. It was as good as I could have hoped.

The National Tour, which began just a few weeks ago, stars Randy Harrison and Andrea Goss. He was a regular in the 2000-2005 TV series Queer As Folk, which I never saw, and she was an ensemble member and Sally Bowles understudy in the recent Broadway production of Cabaret.

Clearly, they must be incredibly talented to be chosen for such high-profile roles--and to be fair, I wouldn't have known Cumming in 1998, though he's since raised his profile through The Good Wife--but I was concerned that this version of Cabaret might suffer for lack of star power.

Which it did, for me, but not in any way that substantially diminished an exceptionally superlative show.

Harrison, who many may know more than Cumming back then or even now, is excellent as the Emcee, if not quite as delectably cheeky.

And though I believe my being familiar with Hatcher and Miller--a beautiful British actress perhaps better known for tabloid romances and breakups--and their real-life careers abetted my appreciation of their takes on Sally, a British cabaret performer in Berlin who is something of a hot mess, Goss sang, danced and acted wonderfully.

I would still advocate for a vocally-gifted-if-perhaps-fading Hollywood starlet, and Alan Cumming for that matter, but as it stands, there is no reason not to see and love Cabaret in Chicago, including the two leads.

For the entire production, now directed by BT McNichol, is demonstrably fantastic, from the sexy on-stage band, to excellent performances by Lee Aaron Rosen (Clifford Bradshaw), Shannon Cochran (Fraulein Schneider), Mark Nelson (Herr Schultz) and everyone else, to source material that is, in a word, brilliant.

With Kander's bold brassy score making for many memorable songs in which every one of Ebb's lyrics is meaningful, and to whatever extent Masteroff's original book or revised latter-day re-iterations deserve credit, Cabaret combines in-your-face fun with foreboding underpinnings perhaps better than any musical ever.

As basic synopsis, in 1931 a fledgling American writer named Clifford Bradshaw comes to Berlin, meets a mysterious man named Ernst Ludwig (Ned Noyes) and is introduced to the Kit Kat Club cabaret and one of its performers, Sally Bowles.

With sex abiding in various combinations at both the club and the boarding house where Cliff rents from Fraulein Schneider, a spinster whose suitor Herr Schultz is a Jewish fruit merchant, the club's Emcee provides something of a gothic omnipresence to the entire, rather brashly risque proceedings, offset by the foreboding rise of Nazism.

More so than I had noted before, the premise alluded me to Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, what with Cliff being an American writer with an imperfect attachment to a beautiful-yet-flighty Englishwoman.

And with a recently passed hero still top of mind, I recalled from the David Bowie Is museum exhibit that Bowie was an avowed fan of Cabaret and Christopher Isherwood, the novelist that inspired the musical. Especially with this awareness, it isn't hard to perceive Bowie's outlandish, androgynous Ziggy Stardust persona as something of an amalgamation of the Emcee and Sally.

But while I've enjoyed sharing my nostalgic connection to Cabaret and some of my extemporaneous thoughts in seeing it once again, none of that should matter much to those wondering simply...

"Should I see it?"

If I haven't made the answer clear enough already, it's an emphatic, "Yes!"

Assuming you like the musical theater form--or while noting how this particular musical ignited my love for it--this show has it all: great songs, a substantive story, wonderful dance numbers, sexy performers, etc., etc., in service, here and now, to a truly magnificent production.

"What good is sitting alone in your room, come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret."

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