It’s tawdry and sleazy, and you wouldn’t want it any other way.
That describes director Sam Mendes’ take on the hard-hitting, yet melodic, leer at the rise of Nazism in pre-war Berlin, Cabaret, now playing at the Kravis Center through Sunday.
Harold Prince staged the original 1966 Broadway production of the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Joe Masteroff show based on the play I Am A Camera and various stories by Christopher Isherwood. While edgy for its time, Prince has long conceded that he pulled his punches with the material, content to break plenty of ground but not go too far.
Fast forward to 1993 with Mendes’ revival, which gleefully rubs our noses in the decadence that was Weimar Germany, as seen through the microcosm of the Kit Kat Club. Without rewriting much of the script, Mendes was able to include a stronger sense of the deviant sexuality and the anti-Semitism inherent in the narrative.
And now, 25 years later, we have a revival of the revival, a near-carbon copy of Mendes’ Tony Award-winning work. Yes, a further evolution of the show would have been preferable, but audiences – returning and new – should be more than satisfied with this vocally powerful cast and remarkably fresh production.
On paper, Cabaret centers on American novelist wannabe Cliff Bradshaw and the girlfriend who virtually falls into his lap, the politically naive, British club singer Sally Bowles. Yet the show has always belonged instead to the invented character of the Emcee. In this touring company, he is played by menacing, crotch-grabbing Erik Schneider in full-throttle smarminess, very much based on the scene-stealing star turn that Alan Cumming made of him.
Masteroff’s script is a model of economy and gut-punch, but it is the Kander and Ebb score that makes Cabaret such an enduring work. The title song, for instance, is such a peppy number out of context, but inside the show it is riddled with pain, as a post-abortion Sally has a metal breakdown before our eyes. That Bailey McCall Thomas is able to convey all that, while belting the tune with power to spare suggests that she – like Liza Minnelli in the film version – would never be trapped in a third-rate club like the Kit Kat.
Like their Chicago, which tells its story through a series of vaudeville turns, Kander and Ebb wrote numerous presentational cabaret numbers (“Don’t Tell Mama,” “Two Ladies,” “If You Could See Her”) that comment on offstage events. Thanks to Mendes’ fluid staging on Robert Brill’s minimalist set, we are never really outside the Kit Kat Club, despite the locale changes.
For two solos for apartment building landlady Fraulein Schneider (“So What,” “What Would You Do?”), Kander wrote homages to the classic German composer Kurt Weill. He closes the first act with a chilling faux-anthem to the Third Reich, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” And listen for “I Don’t Care Much,” a haunting ballad of indifference sung by the Emcee, inexplicably cut from the original show and restored for the revival by Mendes.
Fortunately, the costuming by William Ivey Long is also minimal, which is to say that the chorus girls – many of whom double in the Kit Kat Band – are dressed in unglamorous, yet skimpy underwear. And the lighting by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari is aptly harsh and glaring.
Kander and Ebb were an extremely prolific songwriting team, with many ground-breaking musicals to their credit. Chicago has run longer, but Cabaret is their masterwork. See it at the Kravis Center and you will understand why.
CABARET, Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Feb. 11. $33-$75. 561-832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.