If you go to this show expecting a copy of the Liza Minelli film version, you might leave the theatre thinking you booked for the wrong show, but believe me, you will most certainly not leave disappointed. Directed by Rebecca Frecknall, who quite frankly was so young that she made me feel like a dinosaur, this production was an attack on the senses. Appropriately, it was produced by Underbelly, for the entire production seemed to lurk in the depths of depravity, the cess pit of sensuality, the underbelly of the stark, emerging monster of fascism. This was no bright and breezy, show-biz burdened, glamorised or glitzy interpretation of this oft told tale, but I would venture to suggest that if John Van Druten (author of “I Am A Camera”), Christopher Isherwood (author of “Goodbye to Berlin”) or Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb (the geniuses who put together “Cabaret” the Musical) had been in the audience, they might well have been on their feet to applaud the dark, decadent and quite disturbing depth of this production.
On entering the transformed Playhouse Theatre, the sleaze of the KitKat nightclub was immediately apparent in its décor, its lighting, its strolling sexually-ambiguous players who tantalized the audience even before they reached the auditorium, with its dinner-theatre layout, its in-the-round acting area and again, those strolling musicians and dancers who lulled you into the ambience of 1930’s Berlin. The Telephone Song was missing from the show, but in its place, members of the cast made contact with those seated close to the stage via their table telephones, and flirted and frolicked with them. “Hello, sitting all alone like that. You happened to catch my eye.” Such a clever touch. Sets were necessarily minimal, relying almost entirely on props and effectively using revolving stage sections and a clever rising and falling trap door centre stage. Visual stimulation was provided in abundance through a superb array of costumes, wigs and make-up, and non-stop choreography. If there was a technical flaw, it might have been that on occasions, the quality of sound was a little below power, or perhaps the fault lay in poor diction. I’m so familiar with the music of the show that I didn’t really need to listen to the lyrics, but when the Emcee sang an unfamiliar number in Act Two, (I Don’t Care Much) some of the words were lost to me. The attention to detail in costuming was remarkable, but the Gorilla (If You Could See Her) was perhaps too realistic and might have been more humiliating in tone and context by being more tattered and human. But these are minor niggles in an otherwise captivating production.
The musicality of the show was created not just by quality vocalists and a finely tuned orchestra, but also by those musicians who lured the audience from the bar and into the auditorium before the show.
Julia Cheng’s choreography did for graceful elegance what Pablo Picasso did for portrait painting, transforming it into something grotesque and challenging, yet superbly appropriate and effective. The ugliness of the body shapes and patterns in “Money” accentuated the vulgarity of the decadent rich and the lust for wealth, however ignobly achieved. Two Ladies was a virtual orgy, and I would strongly suggest that you Don’t Tell Mama what the dancers got up to in this number. It may all have been an assault on some peoples’ sense of dignity, but it was pulsating, poignant and profoundly appropriate. None of it would have worked, of course, without a dedicated dance ensemble and individually and collectively, the dancers immersed themselves resplendently in the theme and form of their choreographers concept.
The strength in depth of the principal line was the gel that glued the entire production together, from the elegant yet sinister affability of Ernst Ludwig (Stewart Clarke) to the anything but elegant lascivious encounters of Fraulein Kost (acted, sung and danced with panache by Anna-Jane Casey). Ernst Ludwig (Elliot Levey) and Fraulein Schneider (Liza Sadovy) created the most tender moments of the show, like an aged Romeo and Juliet, with the forlorn hope of finding love in a world that will not accept their differences. The sincerity of their performance was palpable. The Pineapple Song and Married were heart-melting, and Sadovys renditions of So What and What Would You Do were poignant to the point of heart-break. (My goodness, Ms Sadovy has travelled some theatrical journey since I first saw her in Peg, in the Phoenix Theatre, c. 1983. What an enduring and abundant talent.)
Omari Douglas played the innocent abroad, Clifford Bradshaw, with a passion and sincerity that really came to the fore as the darkest undertones of his situation began to dawn on him. His were the eyes that saw reality, and through him, we saw it and felt it with fear and pain and despair. In contrast, we looked into the abyss through the eyes of Eddie Redmaynes Emcee. His voice, his words and his tone perfectly captured the cynical, sinister mind game mentality of the not-so-funny clown, but it was his physical performance, twisting, turning, almost contortionist in nature, that presented him as the snake, the serpent, the demon, the face of evil that slithered and grew into the dark, foreboding figure of Nazism and oppression. Perhaps this was the role he was born to play, and I feel privileged that I got to see him do it.
It was the complete lack of any attempt to emulate Lisa Minelli that made the performance of Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles unique, disturbing and really quite superb. Realism replaced radiance, gaudiness replaced glamour, and even her attempts at frivolity in the face of adversity were tainted with undertones of reluctant acceptance of her lot. This was no butterfly enjoying the sunshine, but a moth, dancing frantically in the cold lamplight, scared of the impending darkness of truth. Of course there was warmth, and there was comedy, all delightfully achieved and played with perfect timing and expression, but this Sally Bowles made you want to weep for the hopelessness of her situation, for her self-realisation that yes, life is a cabaret, but it stinks, and when she performed that number, she made that role her own. Simply stunning.
As the individuality of every character was wiped away, the process of assimilation into the menacing regime began, and the show ended, dark, dreary, and dreadful.
I’m not sure how long this show is set to run, but you’d be a fool to miss it. I intend to return to it, given the chance, and I’m so grateful to have been gifted the tickets to the opening night by my wife. What a gift, what a night and what an incredible experience.
Photo credit: http://www.marcbrenner.co.uk/
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