Well, except for the louche young waiters, baring chests and smiles. And perky young waitresses similarly endowed. Up on the stage, sprawling into the balconies on catwalks, girls in lots of make-up and not much in the way of teddies bare their wares, along with lazily lolling lads, bare chested, friendly enough to saunter down to your table and flirt brazenly. Never were so many attractive girls and young men flaunting crotches, selling drinks, food, show, themselves. And the show hasn’t quite yet begun.
When it begins, you know it, in a big way. Alan Cumming’s way. “Willkommen,” the opening number we all know so well, delivered with brassy assurance and greasy gestures by the whole Kit Kat Kaboodle backing Cumming in his favorite role, this time full out, nothing held back. If you thought his original performance was spellbinding, this time he’s upped the ante: he is daring us to resist him even though he’s showing his contempt for everyone and everything, especially you, the kustomers of the Kit Kat. There’s not a thing he touches he doesn’t degrade. And he is all over. Never has there been a production of Cabaret so slimed.
And the audience cannot get enough.
Into this openly sexual miasma of hardscrabble Berlin arrives hunky, repressed American would-be author, Clifford Bradshaw (Bill Heck). He’s going to soak up 1930’s German atmosphere and write a shocking, Bohemian Great American novel. A much too friendly German, Ernst (Aaron Krohn) enlists him in beating out the customs officials and sends him to Fraulein Schneider (Linda Emond) for a cheap room to rent, and that is where his life spins merrily out of control, just the way he wanted it to happen. He meets the most alluring people, especially Sally Bowles (Michelle Williams), star entertainer at the Kit Kat Klub who becomes his bed partner when she has nowhere else to go. Mostly platonic, that is. Clifford has found he actually prefers men.
Joe Masteroff’s extraordinary book for the show, based on Christopher Isherwood’s still luminous Berlin Stories, forms a rock solid base for one of the most beloved, enduring scores in musical theater, the work of the inimitable writing team, John Kander and Fred Ebb, songs that not only form imperishable niches in the American Songbook but also work for their characters in the show. When the absolutely marvelous Emond as the best ever Fraulein Schneider sings “So What?” it comes right out of her bargaining over the price of Clifford’s room rent and tells us between the notes how tough things really are and how generous a heart she has and cannot help it. When she is courted by totally winning Danny Burstein as Herr Schultz, the grocer who woos her with a pineapple, you fall in love with them both as well as with the song.
Throughout, there’s the fascinating, irresistible presence of the Emcee (great Alan Cumming) just the way master show makers and Sam Mendes (director) and Rob Marshall (co-director and choreographer) want him to be and every one of his songs is spellbinding as well as creepy-crawly. Cumming goes beyond the Emcee’s homosexual flaunting. Becoming completely feminine, he sings the most aching of torch songs, “I Don’t Care Much,” and knocks it out of the park.
But the big surprise is Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles who makes every song of hers a gem, from her Kit Kat numbers “Don’t Tell Mama,” to “Mein Herr,” to Perfectly Marvelous,” to “Maybe This Time,” to her show stopping “Cabaret.” Fragile, vulnerable, adorable, utterly enchanting, and just as sick, she shines, the best of Sally Bowleses.
Of course, once the Nazi presence crashes in, everything goes to hell in the story, but not the show. Of course, there is too much of Cumming but never enough. Robert Brill has tawdrily glitzed up the set and the club design. William Ivey Long summons new imagination to his costumes. Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari play light and shadow into every scene and Brian Ronan’s sound design doesn’t lose a note. This is a must see production, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before, no matter how many qualms and questions you have as you have had before and you will continue to have. This major entertainment is an important show in our history. Don’t resist. Go.
Cabaret (through March 29, 2015)
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, near Eighth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission