Book: Joe Masteroff
Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Director: Rufus Norris
Charting the rise of Nazism against the decadence of the nightclubs in 1930s’ Berlin, the film Cabaret with Bob Fosse’s choreography and Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, is, without doubt, one of the best films of the 20th Century. Thrilling and chilling in equal measures it deserved every accolade it got. This stage version, touring the country, tries hard not to rely on too many of the film’s tropes, but can’t quite pull away from out of its shadow.
Before it was a musical, it was a stage show, itself based on John Druten’s play I Am a Camera, which of course is based in turn on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. With music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, who later gave us Chicago and Curtains ( currently touring) the stage version is markedly different from Jay Allen’s screenplay. For a start, there are other songs and after hearing It Couldn’t Please Me More and So What? it’s no wonder that they didn’t make the film. However, the songs Maybe This Time and Money, written especially for the film, make their way into Rufus Norris’s version.
The musical begins with Cliff Bradshaw, an innocent American, arriving in Germany’s capital in 1931, finding it more Bohemian than he could ever imagine. On his first night, he goes to the Kit Kat club when he meets Sally Bowles, the Toast of Mayfair, now the lead chanteuse of the licentious venue. The next morning, suitcase in hand, Sally arrives at Cliff’s boarding house, run by Fraulein Schneider, and she’s come to stay.
The rise of the Nazis is more explicit here than in the film. A story line, which threatens to eclipse that of Sally and Clifford, focuses on Fraulein Schneider and the Jewish Herr Schultz. Their courtship is occasionally sweet, but it does slow the play down, particularly in the second half. However, it is good to see veteran actor Anita Harris on stage again, and she’s excellent as the beleaguered landlady.
But the main star of the show is John Partridge as the Emcee of the Kit Kat club, and he has a ball in this role. He’s cheeky, nasty, funny, and queeny from the outset when he appears in a window made from the O of Wilkommen on a screen displaying the word. His performance is also very physical, hanging on to the ladders and the moving stairways of Katrina Lindsay’s set, which has many surprises. The only problem with Partridge’s performance is that between all the comedy accents and vocal gurning the lyrics of the songs often get lost.
As Sally, Kara Lily Hayworth is convincing as the tragic cabaret singer and she nails her final song; if only the stage version gave us more of Sally, rather than less. As Clifford, Charles Hagerty is in good voice, but can do little to alleviate the blandness of this American observer. The muscled dancers give it all in Javier de Frotos’ sexy and fruity choreography, blending in nicely with the band’s staccato flavour.
This version of Cabaret can never outshine the film, but the cast and creatives make sure that it comes a close second. The chilling ending, and what probably earns this show its standing ovation, is worth the ticket price alone.
Runs until 22 February 2020 and continues to tour