Last night I went to see Cabaret. It was a sort of birthday present to myself, and a farewell to the Roundabout Hiptix program. It’s for 35 and under, so I’ve aged out of it as of today. In fact I’d seen this production before, but not with Alan Cumming. I’d actually seen it with Michael C. Hall and Susan Egan (and I think, Michael Hayden as Cliff? I’d have to dig around and check the Playbill) on one of my visits before I moved here permanently. My sister and I saw it the night after we had attended LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, and I remember thinking, “Wow. Cabaret does a lot of what The Wild Party was trying to do, only much, much better.” The whole production was in terrific shape when I saw it; I walked away thinking that this is definitely one of the greats. Top ten for certain. This is also the kind of musical I’d take a friend who doesn’t like the form, because boy does it ever show you what just how powerful of a medium musical theater can be.
In any case, it was well worth revisiting on a rainy, snowy night in April. First and foremost for Alan Cumming. What a performance. Basically all he had to do was grin during “Wilkommen” and he had the entire audience (including me) eating out of his hand. That naughty smile; that angular frame; that magnetic stage presence. He was the absolute perfect tour guide to Weimar Berlin, both its sexual excesses and its dark foreboding. Boy am I glad he returned to the role, and anyone with a few bucks to spare should go ahead and scoot over to Studio 54 for a real treat.
Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles, on the other hand? Well, the news is not so good in that direction. She’s just all wrong for the part. Her soft, retiring stage presence is basically the opposite of Sally: she doesn’t have the desperation, the charisma, the fearlessness you’d need for a good Sally. She was soft where she needed to be hard and I found myself rarely looking at her onstage. As I told my friend on the way out of the show, I’ve never seen a Cabaret in which the title song isn’t a devastating coup de theatre*, but sadly enough, this is the first. Both of us felt bad for her that she is trying so hard and clearly failing, but then as my friend pointed out, “I have to do things in my job that I’m not cut out for either. It happens to all of us.”
Because Ms. Williams is so uneven, the whole production feels a little out of whack. I don’t remember having a huge problem with the lack of subtlety back when I saw the production in 2000. Back then, it felt harsh, but unflinching and brave. Necessary. This time it was more apparent, and more bothersome. Does everything need to be so… obvious? Rob Marshall’s choreography for a start (constant bumps and grinds everywhere! pelvic thrusts! crotch grabs!), the concentration camp ending, even the costumes. All this darkness was already in the text and I’m not sure that making everything so utterly blatant is really what this show calls for. We all know how things ended in 1930s Berlin; the Emcee’s “Where are your troubles now? Forgotten! No troubles here!” is all I need. The gas chamber, therefore, was overkill.
I hope that’s not because I’m getting old and prudish. Does turning 36 do that to you?
* — Oh great. Now I’m the type of person who uses the phrase “devastating coup de theatre”. A hundred apologies!