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Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club

If you thought you have seen the Kander and Ebb musical "Cabaret," think again: this new version taken from the 2021 London revival is an entirely new concept

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Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee in a scene from “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club” at the August Wilson Theatre (Photo credit: Marc Brenner)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left”] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]

If you thought you have seen the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, think again. The new version taken from the recent London revival is an entirely new concept. Retitled Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, this interactive production has turned the August Wilson Theatre into a night club where the audience is seated in the round at ring side of the circular playing space as at a supper club, circa 1930. In the 75 minutes prologue before the performance, the audience is invited to show up for alcoholic drinks (from $18 – 29) and cabaret performances by nine louche dancers and musicians that can be seen in various places in the renovated space, a theater whose décor is from the 1920’s and early 30’s, the setting of the musical that follows.

The lead of the show is film star Eddie Redmayne, who won the Olivier Award for his performance as the Emcee in the London production and is also Tony nominated for this show. Director Rebecca Frecknall’s staging (with her British production team) is imaginative and innovative, quite unlike any Cabaret you have seen before. The new Sally Bowles is Scottish American actress Gayle Rankin who appeared as Fraulein Kost on Broadway in Sam Mendes’ 2014 Broadway revival of Cabaret which played at Studio 54. Frecknall’s interpretation is more dissolute and dissipated than most versions so that when American writer Clifford Bradshaw arrives in Berlin to get material for a novel the city is already deep in the throes of degradation and degeneracy when he meets second-rate singer Sally Bowles as the party girl par excellence and lead female singer of the Kit Kat Club.

Gayle Rankin as Sally Bowles in a scene from “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club” at the August Wilson Theatre (Photo credit: Marc Brenner)

Designer Tom Scutt has remarkably transformed the theater into a circular two story arena (the band sits on balconies on two sides of the stage) with shelves before each seat for placing drinks. The rotating stage also contains two pedestals, one smaller than the other, which also appear and disappear and rotate during the cabaret numbers. Scutt’s startling costumes are shabby and decadent, letting us know this is a society in decline. Although the anti-Semitic and Fascist elements of the story do not start at the beginning, the rot has already set in. As the Emcee of the Kit Kat Club, Redmayne’s look in each of the musical numbers (“Willkommen,” “Welcome to Berlin,” “Two Ladies,” “Money,” “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” “If You If You Could See Her,” “I Don’t Care Much,” and the “Finale”) is increasingly bizarre so that he is unrecognizable in each succeeding song accompanied by the disreputable looking Kit Kat dancers dressed by Scutt in what appears to be lingerie.

Rankin plays Sally Bowles as the second-rate singer that she is, with eyes that always look dissipated. However, when she finally sings a song not at the cabaret she displays a lovely voice. Each version of Joe Masteroff’s durable book for Cabaret has changed the character of the writer Cliff Bradshaw, from heterosexual to homosexual. Here the serious dramatic African American actor Ato Blankson-Wood (Hamlet, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Slave Play) is playing him as bisexual, possibly the father of Sally’s unborn child. While his Cliff is a man of integrity, he is definitely slow on the uptake, not noticing the insidious Nazi takeover of Berlin. He doesn’t realize the depth of depravity in his new German friend Ernst Ludwig (Henry Gottfried) until it is almost too late.

Steven Skybell as Herr Schultz and Bebe Neuwirth as Fraulein Schneider in a scene from “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club” at the August Wilson Theatre (Photo credit: Marc Brenner)

As the older couple who fall in love, Bebe Neuwirth as Cliff’s landlady Fraulein Schneider and Steven Skybell (Tevye in the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof) as the Jewish Herr Schultz, a fruit store owner who lives at the boarding house, are low key but heartbreaking as circumstances and the times get in the way. They bring their years of technique and experience to their nuanced performances stealing every scene they are in, including their songs ”It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married”. As the part time prostitute Fraulein Kost who also boards with Fraulein Schneider, Natascia Diaz suggests a good deal more than the script allows her to say. She also appears as Fritzie in the Kit Kat Club scenes.

The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb is one which has been altered for each production since the original in 1966. This one includes Sally’s “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time” written for the 1972 film version and eliminated Cliff’s numbers “The Telephone Song,” “Why Should I Wake Up?” and “Meeskite,” originally sung by Herr Schultz and Sally.  It also includes the Emcee’s “I Don’t Care Much” added to the 1987 and 1998 Broadway revivals. The iconic songs one associates with this show like the title song and “Don’t Tell Mama” sound fresh in this new context as though one has not heard them before.

Gayle Rankin as Sally Bowles and Ato Blankson-Wood as Clifford Bradshaw in a scene from “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club” at the August Wilson Theatre (Photo credit:  Marc Brenner)

The choreography by Julia Cheng is perfectly suited to the circular, revolving stage and becomes more sinister as the evening goes on. Isabella Byrd’s lighting design paints in the set that is only suggested, though props are used. The sound design by Nick Lidster for Autograph is a paragon of clarity. Music supervisor and conductor Jennifer Whyte (on piano) obtains excellent work from the nine piece band and the uncredited orchestrations are a marvel of cabaret sound.

Sadly but ironically, this Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club seems more relevant than it has in a long time. This cautionary tale again seems like it has something to tell us: democracy has to be nurtured and protected or evil influences will take over. Rebecca Frecknall’s production reinvents this 1966 show so that you may feel that you have never seen it before. Actors Eddie Redmayne, Gayle Rankin, Ato Blankson-Wood, Bebe Neuwirth and Steven Skybell are all beautifully in tune with the concept making this one of the glories of the 2023-2024 season.

Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee with the Kit Kat Girls in a scene from “Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club” at the August Wilson Theatre (Photo credit: Marc Brenner)

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club (open run)

August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.kitkat.club

Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission

Optional preshow begins at 6:15 and continues for 75 minutes

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (990 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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