'Cabaret' has to be one of the greatest musicals of all time - if not actually THE greatest musical of all time. Not only does it have some stunning songs and fascinating characters, it also has a compelling and highly political storyline with a message from history that can't be ignored. Set in the decadent Berlin of the early 1930's during the uninhibited era of the Weimar Republic, it sets the rise of the Nazis against the apathy of the masses, and describes a wind of change that would have terrifying consequences for all.
Forever indelibly imprinted on my mind is the definitive film version of the musical starring Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, Joel Grey as the compère and Michael York as a young Englishman abroad in the sexual hedonism of Berlin. The storyline for the film, though basically the same as the book for the stage musical, by Joe Masteroff, introduced new characters, so don't expect to see all the same principals in central roles here - though Sally Bowles and Emcee (the compère) are still given the prominence they justly deserve.
The show opens with the arrival of a young American, Cliff Bradshaw (played by Michael Hayden) in Berlin on New Year's Eve 1930. In a chance meeting at the railway station, he's befriended by the polite and intelligent Ernst (astutely and confidently played by Andrew Maud) who points Cliff to Fraulein Schneider's lodging house. Later, he's introduced to the 'Kit Kat Klub', a cabaret joint where almost anything goes, and meets Sally Bowles, a singer who escapes reality with assistance from cocaine. Before long, Sally moves in with Cliff at Fraulein Schneider's lodging house, where promiscuity also finds a home.
Set against Cliff and Sally's relationship, and the relationship between Fraulein Schneider and her Jewish fiancée, the Nazis start to flex their muscles and their menace is felt by all at both the unassuming lodging house, as well as the outrageous Kit Kat Klub.
Anna Maxwell Martin seemed oddly edgy as Sally Bowles. Though this is part of the characterisation she brings to this role - a cocaine sniffing singer who's done more escaping in her life than joining, one suspects – she didn't seem entirely comfortable in the role. On the other hand, Sheila Hancock as the doggedly resigned Fraulein Schneider, lent a touch of real sadness to the part, and I particularly liked Geoffrey Hutchings as the charming Herr Schultz. Michael Hayden seemed a little too 'lost' in the first half, but his confidence and power grew noticeably in the second act, when he begins to latch on to the nastiness of the Nazis, and is given a severe beating for standing up to them.
The relationship between Fraulien Schneider and Herr Shultz is both touching as well as prophetically sad. Blind to the ambitions of the Nazis, Shultz believes that politicians come and go, but that ordinary people will generally be untouched. It's a glaring reference to the political rise of the Nazis, that went unimpeded due, at least in part, to the apathy of many Germans.
As the Emcee, James Dreyfus gave us a different kind of sinister and quirky portrayal than we saw from Joel Grey in the film. Dreyfus's Emcee, one feels, is already past his prime, and has seen the writing on the wall, but has nowhere to go - or can't be bothered to save his own skin. We're never sure that he's a welcoming host, or one that really despises us. It's a thoughtful performance from Dreyfus which has little to do with his former camp role in 'The Producers', and shows another side of his immense acting abilities.
The singing department leaves us with more to question. I don't think any of the lead actors in this production could be called truly exceptional singers - though there's a fine rendition of the infectious, yet unnervingly chilling, 'Tomorrow Belongs To Me' by Alastair Brookshaw in his West End début as a young Nazi. The quality of the songs in 'Cabaret' - for example, 'Maybe This Time', 'Cabaret', 'Mein Herr', really deserve the highest quality vocals, but if one is trying to portray a society imploding on decadence, and characters like Sally Bowles who live on their nerves and more than a dash of cocaine, one maybe can't also have the finest singing. Don't get me wrong, the singing is professionally competent, but exceptional it's not.
Director Rufus Norris has opted here for a seamy cabaret where anything goes in the sexual preferences department. Even before the show starts, we're given an inkling of what is to come, as a huge sign stares down at us almost issuing an instruction rather than a greeting, as the word 'welcome' (in German) is split into 3 lines: 'Will Kom Men'. And there's 'lashings' of nudity, as well as a significant dose of the bizarre. But this is a second-rate 'Kit Kat Klub' which is on a downhill slope, and as the show reaches its conclusion, the performers are left huddled together, naked and in the cold, victims of a grotesque political machine.
To be fair, I find it hard to be totally objective about this version of 'Cabaret' because I know the film so well, and find it overwhelmingly powerful as well as moving. But I don't think I'll be on my own in this regard. In fact, the audience's response was indicative of this. Politely appreciative rather than exuberantly enthusiastic, the audience seemed muted in their response, and though one or two got to their feet at the end, it was nothing like the mass standing ovation I witnessed at the recent opening of 'Bent' which also focuses on the Nazis.
Though Rufus Norris has done much to renew 'Cabaret' as a politically inspired musical, I don't think his revival of 'Cabaret' has the power either to topple the film from its dizzying, multi-award winning heights, or even to stamp its mark as the definitive stage version, because it simply leaves one craving more. But this must be one of the most difficult musicals to revive, not only because of the success of its filmic predecessor, but also because 'Cabaret' is such a powerfully demanding piece in itself. Still, Norris gets full marks for the bravery of rising to the challenge in the first place, and it's certainly worth seeing, if only to make your own mind up!
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Inventive, musically vigorous production." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Rufus Norris's production of the Kander/Ebb classic is the most stunningly fresh and imaginative revival of a classic musical that I have ever seen." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Forty years after its premiere, Cabaret increasingly looks like one of the defining musicals of the postwar era." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Sensuality is missing." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "This is a strong and daring revival of a great musical that combines unforgettable songs with genuinely gripping and disturbing drama."