Book: Joe Masteroff
Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Director: Rufus Norris
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
Possibly still the best known of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s body of musical theatre classics, Cabaret finds drama amongst the lives and loves of characters in and around a seedy Berlin nightclub of the early 1930s. Referencing the rise of Nazism, personal tragedies unfold against a backdrop of wider historical trauma. But fifty years after its original production, and with an Oscar-winning film version that created some definitive cultural iconography, it’s rather harder to create a satisfying and coherent presentation of this story.
The film differs significantly from the stage version, with different songs, characters and story – Joe Masteroff’s original book is richer in text and structure, and refocuses the action beyond the walls of the Kit Kat Club, featuring a love story between landlady Fraulein Schneider (Anita Harris) and local Jewish greengrocer Herr Schultz (James Paterson). It’s notable that Schneider has just as many songs as Sally Bowles (Kara Lily Hayworth), but whilst Sally embodies the divine decadence for which the story is known, Schneider’s story has the more emotional pay-off.
Indeed, it seems as though Sally Bowles here is a larger-than-life supporting player, serving as little more than a theatrical macguffin to draw us into a story that she then takes little part in – being fired from the Kit Kat Club in an early scene leaves her with little do but drink gin and whine, while even abrasive Fraulein Kost (Basienka Blake), with her steady supply of sailors on shore leave, has her part to play in the rise of fascism.
Director Rufus Norris avoids simply recreating many of the iconic tropes from the film, but fails to produce anything even close to eclipsing the Fosse-Minnelli meisterwerk. The styling of the Kit Kat Club is too sleek and clean – and the staging generally too dark and empty – to adequately suggest the bohemian depravity of the era, the band is shamefully hidden at the back of the stage for most of the time, and although the play’s sexual undertones are brought very much to the fore with the costuming and an increased presence for male members among the company, there’s precious little foreshadowing of the ominous Nazi presence until the undeniably dramatic act one finale of Tomorrow Belongs to Me.
Javier De Frutos’s choreography lacks an alternative to Bob Fosse’s sensual detailing and animalistic muscularity. The club sequences are spirited and delivered with gusto by a versatile and committed company, but several major characters get through the whole production without being troubled by having to coordinate their singing to any kind of movement.
John Partridge as Emcee struggles to establish a relationship with the audience in the cavernous space of the Festival Theatre, and spends too much time seemingly waiting for laughs which don’t come, as well as losing lyrics between contorted accents and strained vocals – the gut-punch payoff of If You Could See Her falls totally flat, and the delivery of I Don’t Care Much is so muted and mumbled that few of the lyrics make it as far as the mid-stalls.
Hayworth is much stronger vocally, with Maybe This Time building from fragile optimism to a pitch-perfect climax, but the would-be showstopper Cabaret loses much of its emotional power from being supplanted by the subsequent shock-factor finale.
Schneider’s songs may lack some of the distinctive Kander and Ebb verve, wit and energy, but Harris delivers them with a clarity of voice and emotional heart.
There’s no reason why Cabaret shouldn’t still feel contemporary and resonant for audiences today, but despite some good moments there’s little vital spark in this production to really make it sear and sizzle as it should.
Runs until 9 November 2019 | Image: Contributed