Chicago Theatre Review
Everybody Loves a Winner
Cabaret – Broadway in Chicago
New York’s Roundabout Theatre is celebrating 50 years of top quality theatrical entertainment with this polished, highly energetic National Tour of their recent popular, award-winning revival of Kander and Ebb’s classic musical. This production, co-directed by Sam Mendes and choreographer Rob Marshall, recreates the gritty decadence of their 1998 and 2014 versions of the show. Can’t afford a trip to New York City right now? Never fear, because this limited engagement from the Big Apple not only makes the Loop sizzle during a frigid February, but it truly lives up to the label, “Broadway in Chicago.”
Set in Berlin during the late 1920’s, Joe Masteroff’s libretto portrays the fictional, depraved Kit Kat Klub as a metaphor to represent the foreboding menace lurking in Weimar Germany. As told through the eyes of Clifford Bradshaw, a struggling young American writer seeking inspiration for his first novel, Berlin is like one big, wild, tawdry party (“Everyone’s having such a great time. Like a bunch of kids playing in their room–getting wilder and wilder, knowing any minute their parents are going to come home”). He meets Fraulein Schneider, his kindly new landlady; Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor; Ernst Ludwig, who not only becomes Clifford’s first student of English, but offers him an illicit way to earn some much-needed cash; Fraulein Kost, a bitter, feisty lady of the night; and Sally Bowles, the nightclub’s sassy songstress headliner and party girl. The parents finally do come home in the form of the Nazi Party. The young author foresees Germany’s downward spiral toward the Holocaust and suddenly life isn’t as beautiful as the Kit Kat Klub’s creepy Emcee proclaims.
Audiences were first introduced to this musicalized adaptation of John Van Druten’s drama, “I Am a Camera,” back in 1966. That play was, in turn, based on Christopher Isherwood’s short novel, Goodbye to Berlin. The musical was revived in a very conventional 1987 production; but the 1998 reimagining, based upon Sam Mendes’ West End production, became the new, definitive version. That Studio 54 revival garnered even more awards and sparked a new audience for the musical, which reopened again in 2014. The production now in Chicago is a restaging of this fresh, yet brash and brazen rendition of the musical.
Masteroff’s rejuvenated re-invention of the book musical cleverly juxtaposes the story’s darker dramatic scenes with bright, raucous, often racy songs and production numbers that take place inside the confines of the cabaret nightclub. As the play progresses these scenes grow more threatening.
The ubiquitous, sexually uninhibited Emcee, played with devilish glee and sinister kinkiness by stage, television and film star Randy Harrison, welcomes the audience (“Willkommen”) and promises an evening ahead of debauchery and fun. Mr. Harrison greatly impresses with each musical number, particularly the melancholy “I Don’t Care Much.” He titillates in the delightfully R-rated “Two Ladies” (coupling with provocative ensemble members Dani Spieler and Leeds Hill), drives home a sensitive point with “If You Could See Her” and opens Act II by kicking up a storm with the other Kit Kat girls. The Emcee’s sultry performance of “Money,” one of three songs adapted from the 1972 film version for this production, is terrific. Like a smirking deity, this Emcee is always lurking in the background, constantly observing and commenting on everyone and everything that happens; and his final scene brings the show to a crashing close, like a punch in the stomach.
The exquisite Andrea Goss is magnificent as Sally Bowles, the Kit Kat Klub’s self-deluded English headliner. With her Betty Boop-like look and sound, this diminutive little lady with the colossal voice sings the heck out of numbers like “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr,” a lamentably hopeful “Maybe This Time” and, with tears streaming down her face, a vehement, gut-wrenching “Cabaret.” But Ms. Goss not only makes every musical number her own, she’s a skilled young actress, as well. Each song becomes a musical monologue and every dramatic scene is stellar, as well.
Other standouts in this production include the handsome Lee Aaron Rosen as Clifford Bradshaw, the young American writer in search of literary inspiration. Unlike many of his predecessors, Mr. Rosen portrays Clifford more like Isherwood, the real-life author on whom he’s modeled. His character is cautiously on-the-fence as to whether he’s straight, gay or bisexual. The Emcee, Bobby and Sally are constantly kissing, touching and groping him, and his reactions continually vary. Even Ernst Ludwig, played with guarded sinister affability by the excellent Ned Noyes, finds the budding American author a temptation, in more ways than one. The impressive Alison Ewing does double duty, both as Kit Kat girl and musician Fritzie and as the spirited and spunky lady of the night, Fraulein Kost. Both she and Noyes lend their powerful voices to the goosebump-inducing Act I finale, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
But the surprising side story of a mature couple’s romance and its sad consequences is brilliantly played by Chicago actress Shannon Cochran, as Fraulein Schneider, and New York character actor Mark Nelson, as Herr Schultz. They’re easily the heart and soul of this story, representing all the everyday people caught up in Germany’s maelstrom. Their portrayal of a middle-age German woman trying to survive Berlin’s political upheaval and her Jewish Romeo, a kind, elderly fruit vendor who only wants to share a little happiness during his golden years is both pitiful and piquant. Humorous songs like “So What” and “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” along with the poignant “Married” and the despairing “What Would You Do?” add up to everything that this extraordinary musical is about.
All of these performances come together, thanks to the sharp direction and superb choreography provided by BT McNicholl and Cynthia Onrubia, based upon original concepts by Mendes and Marshall. Robert Brill’s sparse, yet effective stage design is a textbook example of how less is almost always more; the lighting design by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari spark life in this story; and the sensuous period fashions created by Tony Award-winning costumer William Ivey Long say as much about each character as all their songs and dialogue. Musical director Robert Cookman’s magnificent onstage orchestra, comprised of many of the ensemble, is the most impressive ever heard for this musical. They are the luminaries who provide the real brilliance in this production.
Chicagoans will find the Kit Kat Klub ablaze with talented performers and musicians, generating enough heat to counteract the cold February winds blowing outside. This is a production truly deserving of the Broadway in Chicago moniker. It reflects the excellence of the Roundabout Theatre and reminds audiences of the greatness that Kander and Ebb created in their musical about a city called Berlin, a nightspot called the Kit Kat Klub and a girl named Sally Bowles. She sings that “everybody loves a winner.” Well, Sally must’ve been thinking of this superb, sensational production, because a winner it is!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 9-21 by Broadway in Chicago at the newly named PrivateBank Theatre (formerly the Bank of America Theatre), 18 W. Monroe, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, at all Ticketmaster retail locations, by calling the Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com