Review: Roundabout Theatre Company presents ‘Cabaret’ (*****)

by Charles Kruger

“There was a cabaret and there was a master of ceremonies and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany. It was the end of the world —” (from the script of “Cabaret”)

Even the orchestra is beautiful in Roundabout Theater Company's Touring production of "Cabaret." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.
Even the orchestra is beautiful in Roundabout Theatre Company’s Touring production of “Cabaret.” Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

“Cabaret” is an often produced musical, with light hearted and witty songs and jaunty melodies and an amusingly rakish MC who tells dirty jokes. Of course, there’s a subtext about Nazis and the rise of the Third Reich, but mostly it’s just good, smutty fun. Many of us have seen productions of  Cabaret that fit this description, even when the producers and director claim to be honoring its dark side.

Thus, Roundabout Theatre Company’s decision to revive this somewhat tarnished masterpiece in 1998 was most welcome. The non-profit Roundabout Theatre Company, unlike more commercial Broadway ventures, is very much an “art theatre” that specializes in classic works presented with integrity and pulling no punches. Their production, featuring Alan Cumming (who won a Tony) as the MC, became legendary over night and was revived on Broadway in 2014 for a second great success.

Now, in the midst of a Presidential election season, this masterful work comes to San Francisco with Roundabout’s National Touring Company. On opening night, the big news was the vote in England to leave the European Union — a decision which many feel marks a resurgence of Fascist (read “Nazi”) political ideologies in Europe. Surprisingly, “Cabaret” is more topical today than when the original opened on Broadway in 1966.

This hard-hitting production of “Cabaret” is anything but shallow. 

The musical’s topicality was in evidence on opening night in San Francisco when the audience often burst into applause not only at the end of musical numbers, but each time a telling political point was made. One theme of Cabaret is the importance of staying awake to the import of political developments, rather than withdrawing into decadence such as the Kit Kat Klub, and Roundabout’s production does, indeed, have the capacity to shake us from sleep.

Randy Harrison is sexy and disturbing as the MC. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.
Randy Harrison is sexy and disturbing as the MC. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Randy Harrison is a chilling, exuberant MC who informs the character with an unmistakeable rage — the full motivation for which becomes evident only in the show’s final moments. Famously good looking, Harrison uses his beauty to confront the audience with an in-your-face sexiness that is cruel, seductive, childlike, calculated, crass, and thrilling. His deterioration over the course of events is fascinating and heartbreaking, erotic and disgusting. Harrison is a man approaching 40, but can look like an innocent teenager or an aging voluptuary, sometimes simultaneously. There is something very Puckish, by which I mean almost alien, in this performance. (I was reminded of a similarly brilliant and unforgettable performance by an older man in a “sexy” part: the great Richard Thomas — at age 49— as an astonishingly boyish and sexually disturbing Puck in a late-90’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Peter Hall.)

Harrison delivers a superlative performance of great depth and subtlety, covered with a veneer of panache. He is extraordinary.

Andrea Goss and Lee Aaron Rosen are the young lovers, Sally Bowles and Clifford Bradshaw, who blissfully enjoy the deliciously decadent milieu of the Kit Kat Klub, while ignoring the ascension of the Nazi Party. Their friend Ernst, the Nazi smuggler (Ned Noyes), dismisses Clifford’s concern over Hitler with the lighthearted assertion, “. . . But enough politics, we are friends — close friends.” Then he turns his attention to destroying the happiness of Fräulein Schneider by telling her that her coming marriage to the Jewish Herr Schulz would be “not advisable” — for her own good, of course. Later, he stands by as Clifford’s face is beaten to a bloody pulp by Nazi thugs.

Andrea Goss is a marvel as Sally, resisting the temptation to belt out the songs, not letting us forget that, at best, Sally is a mediocre chanteuse. Nevertheless, she does not fail to imbue each song with Sally’s desperate passion to live wildly, nor does she fail to reveal the scared child living inside the party girl. Lee Aaron Rosen effectively captures Clifford’s journey from innocence to a gradual recognition of the Nazi menace. The chemistry between the two is completely convincing.

Andrea Goss and Lee Aaron Rosen as Sally Bowles and Clifford Bradshaw. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.
Andrea Goss and Lee Aaron Rosen as Sally Bowles and Clifford Bradshaw. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.
Shannon Cochran as Fräulein Schneider, Mark Nelson as Herr Schultz. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.
Shannon Cochran as Fräulein Schneider and Mark Nelson as Herr Schultz. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Speaking of chemistry, the aforementioned ill-fated romance between Herr Schulz and Fräulein Schneider is delightfully rendered in charming performances by Shannon Cochran and Mark Nelson.

As topical as today’s weather report, Roundabout’s wonderful “Cabaret” is as fresh as the beginning of summer. It will certainly wake you up! Highly recommended.

“Cabaret” plays at the Golden Gate Theatre through July 17, 2016. For further information, click here

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Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.
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“Cabaret” produced by Roundabout Theatre Company. Book by Joe Masteroff. Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood. Director: B. T. McNicholl. Originally Directed by Sam Mendes. Orginally Co-Directed and Choreographed by Rob Marshall. Choreography recreated by Cynthia Onrubia. Set Design: Robert Brill. Costume Design: William Ivy Long. Lighting Design: Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari. Sound Design by Keith Caggina, based on the original Broadway design by Brian Ronan. 

Cast:

Emcee: Randy Harrison. The Kit Kat Girls — Rosie: Samantha Shafer. Lulu: Dani Spieler. Frenchie: Aisling Halpin. Texas: Margaret Dudasik. Fritzie: Alison Ewing. Helga: Sarah Bishop. The Kit Kat Boys — Bobby: Leeds Hill. Victor: Andrew Hubacher. Hans: Evan D. Siegel. Herman: Tommy McDowell. Sally Bowles: Andrea Goss. Clifford Bradshaw: Lee Aaron Rosen. Ernst Ludwig: Ned Noyes. Fräulein Schneider: Shannon Cochran. Fräulein Kost: Alison Ewing. Rudy: Evan D. Siegel. Herr Schulz: Mark Nelson.  Max: Tommy McDowell. Gorilla: Aisling Halpin. Boy Soprano (recording): Alex Bowen. Customs Official (recording): Fred Rose. 

 

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