When most of us think of "Cabaret," the images that come to mind are Liza Minnelli's slinky, sensuous Sally Bowles and Joel Grey's seductive and sinister Emcee.
Those defining performances from the 1972 movie have a tragic glamor that has, until now, been hard to shake. Sam Mendes' superb production, though, breaks their spell and creates a bleak, black magic of its own.
Minnelli and Grey played their characters as class acts. Their show at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin on the eve of Nazi power was decadent but supremely professional. Here, on the other hand, the club is down-at-heel, tawdry and nasty. Instead of being a warm boudoir of fantasies, it is as sharp and hard as a bed of nails.
One way to get a sense of what Mendes is up to is to think of two other shows on Broadway "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "The Sound of Music." Both are set in places under Nazi rule. But in each, the Nazis seem unreal.
The difficulty of making us really believe in them, of making the swastika more than just a red-and-black design, is obvious. This production of "Cabaret" tackles it by plunging us into the moral disarray from which they crawled.
We are, from the start, in the Kit Kat Klub itself. We sit at tables. Waitresses serve drinks and food. And though this may seem like a gimmick, it is in fact crucial to the success of the production.
It means, firstly, that there is no escape from the self-destructive world in which the Nazis will come to power. We are on their territory, willing participants in their sick spectacle. The feeling of being in a society that is entertaining itself to death becomes overpowering.
Placing everything in the club is, secondly, a way to overcome the biggest technical problem the musical presents.
"Cabaret" works on two quite different levels. There is the show-within-a-show presided over by the Emcee. And there is the more conventionally dramatic story of the young American novelist (effectively played by John Benjamin Hickey).
He comes to Berlin and falls in love with the Kit Kat singer Sally Bowles. He makes friends with a young Nazi, brilliantly conceived by Denis O'Hare as a boyish nice guy. Through the destruction of the relationship between his landlady and a Jewish fruit seller the excellent Mary Louise Wilson and Ron Rifkin he discovers the truth about the Nazis.
The difficulty is moving easily between these two levels of action. By placing everything within the frame of the club, the problem is solved. The doomed love story becomes itself a part of the show.
Making this work, though, places a great burden on the role of the Emcee, who has to preside not just over the show but over the whole story. The extraordinary Alan Cumming proves himself up to the task.
Cumming transforms himself into an androgynous, unearthly succubus. Where Joel Grey was wonderfully, smoothly sinister, Cumming is all edges and angles. He seems to have no fixed identity, just a dangerous, disturbing capacity to take whatever shape the times dictate. He is master of ceremonies at one moment, a member of the chorus line the next. He goes from sadist to victim in the twinkling of an eye.
Just as Cumming remakes the role of the Emcee, Natasha Richardson's Sally escapes the shadow of Liza Minnelli. One of the strengths she brings to the role is rather simple: She is, as Sally is meant to be, English.
As Richardson portrays her, Sally is obviously a child of privilege. She could easily have been the wife of a landed gentleman. Her jolly, gangly mannner is almost that of a frightfully nice fox-hunting girl. And this makes her descent into gin-sodden promiscuity all the more moving. Her self-destruction is also a refuge from a world she could not abide.
Ironically, it actually helps that though Richardson has a voice forceful enough to handle great numbers like "Maybe This Time" and "Cabaret," she is clearly not a professional singer. When Minnelli did the role, she was so good that you wondered why, near the start, the Kit Kat Klub fires her. Richardson, by contrast, acts the enthusiastic amateur so well that her fantasies about her "career" as a singer are deeply poignant.
Rob Marshall's superb choreography is, besides, perfectly in step with this sense that the club is a low-rent joint. The dancing manages the difficult trick of seeming gauche without actually being so.
The Kit Kat Girls are a ragged, hard-faced bunch, their movement full, not of glamor, but of violence.
In this brilliant, spellbinding production, we realize that they are dancing on the edge of an abyss.
"Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome." Those familiar lyrics can scarcely have sounded less welcoming or more threatening than at the Roundabout Theater's wondrously sleazy new production of the musical "Cabaret," which opened last night at what, many dark moons ago, was the Henry Miller Theater and which has now been theatrically transformed into the Kit Kat Klub.
British director Sam Mendes - who first had his way with the John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff musical at his own tiny Donmar Warehouse theater in London in '93 - has not so much reinvented the musical or even Hal Prince's original staging as refocused it.
Based on Christopher Isherwood's "Berlin Stories" and, to some extent, on "I Am a Camera," John Van Druten's stage adaptation, "Cabaret" was always its own strange creature.
Over the course of the show's development, Masteroff's book (and, of course, the music and lyrics) about heroine Sally Bowles and the Berlin nightclub where she works took the linking image of the club's Emcee and propelled him to become the dominant character.
This figure, found in neither Isherwood nor Van Druten, emerges as a paradigm of the decadent zeitgeist of the Ger man Weimar Republic in 1929-30, a few years before Adolf Hitler and his Nazis were elected to power.
Mendes has upped the ante on the Nazis. Just as this season's "The Diary of Anne Frank" and even "The Sound of Music" have become more ready with the display of swastikas and more willing to stress the German anti-Semitism of the period, so this rougher, more realistic staging of "Cabaret" - complete with a "shock" ending not entirely unexpected - has a jagged touch and sour taste markedly intensified from the original.
Even the wild drug abuse and gross sexual freedom of Weimar Germany - typified by the George Grosz drawings of that time - are given full and easy rein, and the homosexuality (maybe bisexuality, if you believe in that) of the hero - latent if perhaps hinted at in Isherwood - is brought front and center.
As for the androgynous figure of the Emcee - sinister enough in the original of Joel Grey - he has become a mocking, spaced-out, etiolated figure from Dante's "Inferno" seen through the wrong-ended binoculars of "Trainspotting." This edgier characterization comes courtesy of the fine Scottish actor Alan Cumming, who was with the Mendes staging in London.
This tougher, rougher second glance at Kander and Ebb is even tougher and rougher than last season's rougher, tougher hit staging of "Chicago" - and sometimes it runs contrary to the essential Broadway belt of the score.
It is, after all, meant to be a musical comedy, not a musical tragedy, and Mendes puts a heavy, angst-ridden freight on that comedy.
The process certainly works, but one can see the wheels frantically turning, and hereabouts and thereabouts less might well have classically proved more.
It does protest a little too much, I think; and, as a result, Sally Bowles, with her prairie oysters and green fingernails, tends to get lost amid all the Weill bodies.
But we get too serious. After all, the show's just a "Cabaret," old chum, and the execution lifts up both the musical itself and Mendes' own heavyweight concept, getting it running like a demon dynamo.
Mendes' idea of taking the evening out of a theater's proscenium stage and placing it, more or less, in a site-specific cabaret setting works well, perhaps simply by making theme more important than story.
William Ivey Long's costumes seem beautifully shabby, while Robert Brill's setting (which pays an affectionate tribute to Boris Aronson's celebrated "mirror" in the original) is as effective as the sound, lighting and the jazzily expressionistic choreography by Rob Marshall, who is also listed as co-director.
Natasha Richardson - looking like an Andy Warhol image of herself - is the perfect Kensingtonian Sally Bowles, more authentic even than Judi Dench in the first London production.
John Benjamin Hickey offers a surprisingly well-textured hero. The elderly, ill-starred lovers are powerfully portrayed by Mary Louise Wilson and Ron Rifkin, while the newly empowered Nazis have chilling sponsors in Denis O'Hare and Michele Pawk.
But the performance hinges - as it must in any production of "Cabaret" - on the Emcee, and Cumming, with his charmingly youthful, twisted snarl, drug-embattled body and air of winsome, willful amorality, dominates the scene like a manic marionette from sex hell.
Sally Bowles has just stepped into the spotlight, which is, you would imagine, her very favorite place to be. Yet this avidly ambitious chanteuse recoils when the glare hits her, flinching and raising a hand to shade her face. Wearing the barest of little black dresses and her eyes shimmering with fever, she looks raw, brutalized and helplessly exposed. And now she's going to sing us a song, an anthem to hedonism, about how life is a cabaret, old chum. She might as well be inviting you to hell.
Not exactly an upbeat way to tackle a showstopper, is it? Yet when Natasha Richardson performs the title number of ''Cabaret,'' in the entertaining but preachy revival of the 1966 Kander-Ebb show that opened last night, you'll probably find yourself grinning in a way you seldom do at musicals these days. For what Ms. Richardson does is reclaim and reinvent a show-biz anthem that is as familiar as Hamlet's soliloquy.
She hasn't made the number her own in the way nightclub performers bring distinctive quirky readings to standards. Instead, she has given it back to Sally Bowles. Ms. Richardson, you see, isn't selling the song; she's selling the character. And as she forges ahead with the number, in a defiant, metallic voice, you can hear the promise of the lyrics tarnishing in Sally's mouth. She's willing herself to believe in them, and all too clearly losing the battle.
For pleasurable listening, you would of course do better with Liza Minnelli, who starred in the movie version. But it is to Ms. Richardson's infinite credit that you don't leave the theater humming the tune to ''Cabaret,'' but brooding on the glimpses it has provided of one woman's desperation.
Desperation, and not of the quiet variety, is the watchword of this revival, which has been staged for the Roundabout Theater Company by the hot young English director Sam Mendes and the American choreographer Rob Marshall. Presented in the Henry Miller Theater, which the designer Robert Brill has refashioned in the image of the lurid club of the play's title with stage-side tables replacing the orchestra seats, the production pushes hard to remind us that the decadence of Weimar Berlin was far from divine.
This ''Cabaret'' is seedier, raunchier and more sinister than either the original groundbreaking Broadway version, directed by Harold Prince, or the 1970 movie by Bob Fosse. But it is also, in the long run, less effective. Like its heroine, Sally Bowles, it wants nothing more than to shock, and as with Sally, the desire winds up seeming more naive than sophisticated.
That doesn't mean that you should pass on this ''Cabaret.'' You would be foolish, first of all, to miss the extraordinary Ms. Richardson, the English stage and film actress last seen on Broadway in ''Anna Christie,'' who is here giving what promises to be the performance of the season. Her Sally Bowles is a dazzling example of how star power can be harnessed to create a devastating portrait of someone who is definitely not a star. You find yourself thinking less of Ms. Minnelli's winning screwball gamine in the same part than of Laurence Olivier in ''The Entertainer.''
What's more, in the role of the androgynous M.C., who acts as a Brechtian guide to the play's seamy universe, Alan Cumming commits grand theatrical larceny by commandeering a character that promised to be eternally the property of Joel Grey. Mr. Cumming, a Scottish actor making his New York debut, studiously avoids impersonating Mr. Grey's satanic marionette of the Broadway and film versions. Instead, he presents an M.C. with a human face, bruisable beneath the white grease paint and pandering smile.
He also replaces Mr. Grey's acid, insinuating manner with a crude, confrontational sexuality, which is part of the directors' overall rethinking of the mise-en-scene. Mr. Mendes has been widely celebrated for his revivifying interpretations of the musicals ''Company'' and ''Assassins'' at the Donmar Warehouse in London, where he is artistic director. (His ''Othello,'' reset in roughly the same period as ''Cabaret,'' comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music next month.) And his gift for fluid, inventive staging is evident here, particularly in his use of Mr. Cumming as an all-pervasive commentator on the action.
But Mr. Mendes and Mr. Marshall are overeager to capitalize on the anything-goes license allowed a latter-day production of ''Cabaret.'' From the M.C.'s fabled opening number, ''Willkommen,'' the Kit Kat Club he presides over is already in the pits of degradation and apathy. When Mr. Cumming, with spangled nipples peeking out from beneath a black-leather trench coat, tells his audience to leave its troubles outside and that ''in here life is beautiful,'' he is all too obviously lying.
The carnal, gyrating chorus of men and women, who specifically simulate assorted sexual positions as well as doubling (quite nicely) as the band, look ill and spent in William Ivey Long's tatty black costumes, like denizens in an S-and-M bar who have already let the games go on too long. They even bring to mind -- intentionally, one presumes -- images of the skeletal inmates of the concentration camps to come.
There's nothing seductive about them. And the experience of ''Cabaret'' has to be one of illicit seduction: both for the work's hero, the American writer Clifford Bradshaw (John Benjamin Hickey), and, more important, for the audience, who must be made to feel complicitous with the work's dark spirit of revelry.
Here, even though theatergoers are meant to feel they're patrons of the Kit Kat Club, the hard-sell ugliness is distancing after the initial jolt. The production has shot its ammunition of shock effects, and nothing that follows is likely to be too surprising. That includes the M.C. baring his buttocks to reveal a swastika and the anti-Semitic dance with a gorilla, ''If You Could See Her Through My Eyes,'' a routine that still provokes shivers in the film version. As fine as Mr. Cumming is, you can't help feeling that his character has been defanged.
John Kander and Fred Ebb's songs, moody and biting evocations of the age of Kurt Weill, are so good that the cabaret production numbers still hold you, despite the repetitiveness of Mr. Marshall's pelvic choreography. Where the show has its most pointed problems, and always has, is in the narrative part of its book by Joe Masteroff.
Inspired by Christopher Isherwood's ''Berlin Stories'' and John Van Druten's stage adaptation of them, ''I Am a Camera,'' the musical presents two parallel love stories: that of Clifford and Sally, who moves in with the writer after meeting him at the Kit Kat Club, and of Fraulein Schneider (Mary Louise Wilson), Clifford's landlady, and Herr Schultz (Ron Rifkin), a Jewish grocer.
There's a perfunctory quality in the script's plotting of these doomed romances and seemingly little effort to create complete characters. Mr. Rifkin goes a considerable distance in bringing an unforced, sentimental dignity to Schultz, though Ms. Wilson, usually a delightful performer, seems lost in a role first played by Lotte Lenya.
Although Cliff is now a bisexual (as he was in the movie) and even kisses a chorus boy on the lips, he remains one of those artist-as-cipher characters that it's hard to do much with. You tend to forget that he's even in the show when he's not onstage, and Mr. Hickey's blunt, all-American interpretation doesn't do much to remedy this.
Given Ms. Minnelli's Oscar-winning tour de force in the movie of ''Cabaret,'' one tends to forget that Sally Bowles, the promiscuous, self-styled showgirl, isn't really the center of the stage version; she's been conceived more as just another tile in a social mosaic. The creators of this production have beefed up the role by adding two numbers for Sally from the movie, ''Mein Herr'' and ''Maybe This Time.'' But the part as written still has a paper-doll quality.
It's all the more amazing, then, to see what Ms. Richardson does with it. Although she looks ravishing, there's little evidence of vanity in her performance. This Sally is remarkable only for her desire to be remarkable. (In this sense, she brings to mind Madonna.) Beneath the exotic glamour-girl persona, the green fingernails and the soignee cigarette holder, there's evidence of the drab, wounded refugee from middle-class English life.
The tragedy of Ms. Richardson's Sally, which comes closer to the prototype of Isherwood's stories than any other I've seen, is that for all her determination to be a star, she knows she's not very talented. And while Ms. Richardson has a creditable, on-key voice, she uses it to create the imitative period effects of a singer with no style of her own.
There's a moment in each of Sally's numbers when the take-me-or-leave-me bravado slips a little, and you can see her pondering her own limitations. She picks herself up all right, but you can't imagine she'll be able to do it indefinitely. When Sally sings, ''Maybe this time I'll win,'' the hope is purely artificial, and she is more eloquent about a doomed culture's masochism than anything in the show around her. Born-to-lose characters can be tedious, but Ms. Richardson turns this one into an electrifying triumph.
Wasted Kit Kat Girls, crotch-grabbing choreography and a drugged-out Sally Bowles all set the tone for Sam Mendes' darkly revisionist deconstruction of "Cabaret," presented, cabaret-style, at the Kit Kat Klub (aka the Henry Miller Theatre, an actual 43rd Street burlesque). Musical-theater purists will lament the lack of legit voices and Broadway glamour. But bold and disturbing directorial strokes, intensely provocative performances and dollops of smoldering sexuality should ensure huge ongoing demand at a box office with only about 500 seats a night to sell.
The main difference between this truly astounding "Cabaret" and every other revival is that Mendes has made the director's concept the principal attraction of the evening. Given that this redoubtable Kander & Ebb tuner has been a perennial star vehicle for the likes of Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli, this is no mean feat. Natasha Richardson may be the big name on the marquee here, but her vulnerable and understated performance makes no attempt to break out from the pervasive ensemble milieu.
Just like fellow Brit Nicholas Hytner, who found the human pain in the hitherto schmaltzy "Carousel," Mendes is clearly trying to rescue what he sees as the dark soul of "Cabaret" from the layers of showbiz kitsch that have shrouded its sharp-edged portrait of decadent Berlin on the cusp of Nazi domination.
Mendes' work is far from subtle. The crowd at the Kit Kat Klub is not the usual Broadway-beautiful collection of dancers: They look more like Calvin Klein models who have not slept for a week. They simulate sex acts behind a screen, pout and snarl at the audience. Alan Cumming's sexually ambivalent Emcee has none of the usual Grey-style pizzazz --- he's too busy flashing the audience with a swastika tattooed on his rear end.
For most of an evening that's not dull for a second (thanks in part to a thrilling set that includes all of Robert Brill's trademark multiple levels and disappearing panels), Mendes' ideas not only work very well, but have the effect of making one reconsider the dramaturgy of a Broadway masterpiece that has a narrative sophistication well beyond the more transitory appeal of its splashy production numbers.
We understand anew the pain of Fraulein Schneider (a terrific performance from Mary Louise Wilson). Michele Pawk's deep-throated version of Fraulein Kost makes the hooker-turned-Nazi more terrifying than ever. John Benjamin Hickey's Clifford is like a terrified deer caught in a confusing sensual trap. And Richardson's emotive, anti-glamorous rendition of the celebrated titular number eschews cliche in favor of arresting emotional intensity.
Certainly, there are some trade-offs here. Neither Richardson nor Cumming is a great singer (and the ensemble is too busy doubling as the orchestra and shocking the punters to really get its collective throat around Kander's luscious harmonies). One is also left with the sense that Mendes wished the whole show was set in a cabaret --- he seems much less full of ideas when it comes to the more traditional book sections set inFraulein Schneider's place.
But none of this will matter when it comes to this production's commercial appeal. There's enough thematic gravitas to please the arty crowd, even as those who are lamenting the lack of titillation in Times Square now have a new entertainment choice.
It'll be an intoxicating cocktail for everyone, and (stars or no stars) the Roundabout will be able to fill the tables at the Kit Kat Klub until the apocalypse.