By Jay Darcy
Cabaret is one of my all-time favourite musicals. Both its story and its score are tremendous. Dark and depressing, but dazzling, it makes Les Misérables look like le merveilleux!
The musical offers creatives a great deal of interpretation, but Rebecca Frecknall’s new production is a roaring reimagining. She has radically reinvented the rules and, somehow, made this twisted tale even more twisted.
Indeed, she has twisted every single little aspect of the musical to make it unrecognisable from any production of Cabaret one might have seen before. Whilst that might sound risky – unnecessary, even – Frecknall succeeds in bringing the musical’s themes and messages to the forefront and creating the most sumptuous spectacle you ever did see.
Frecknall’s production has received unprecedented acclaim from critics and fans alike, with bodacious reviews everywhere from boring broadsheets to brassy blogs. Everybody is in agreement – this new production of Cabaret is, indisputably, one of the greatest pieces of theatre of all time.
Cabaret is based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera – which, itself, was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939).
The musical’s setting is 1929-1930 Berlin, during the twilight of the Jazz Age, as the Nazis are ascending to power. The musical focuses on the hedonistic nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Club and revolves around the relations between an American writer, Clifford Bradshaw, and an English cabaret performer, Sally Bowles. A subplot involves the doomed romance between German boarding house owner, Fräulein Schneider, and Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor.
Overseeing the action is the Master of Ceremonies (aka Emcee) at the Kit Kat Club, with the club, itself, serving as a metaphor for ominous political developments in late Weimar Germany. The musical depicts Weimar-era Berlin during this chaotic interwar period as a carnival of debauchery and despair, inhabited by desperate people who are unaware of the national catastrophe that awaits them.
Now, the show begins as soon as you walk into the theatre – before the production, itself, begins. Instead of entering at the front of the Playhouse (which is now the theatre’s exit), you enter around the back and head down into the basement. Even the staircase is dazzling.
You walk along a few corridors before entering a bar lit by red lights. At the entrance of the bar sits a cabaret performer, adorning themselves in a mirror. Upstairs, there’s an especially grandiose bar, complete with gold decor – and even a dancer and band playing on the bar counter.
It’s an incredibly immersive experience, in which you experience a cabaret before Cabaret, itself. It’s a sensuous prologue that transports you to the Kit Kat Club – both metaphorically and literally, for when you head into the auditorium, you realise that the Playhouse has been transformed into the Kit Kat Club! Once a traditional theatre, it is now in-the-round, with the circular stage surrounded by seats (cabaret tables and theatre seats) – voyeurs at every angle, finding entertainment in the tragical tale of Cabaret‘s unlucky characters.
A long list of splendid stars have starred in productions of Cabaret. This production, itself, was originally lead by Academy Award, BAFTA, Golden Globe, 2 x Olivier, 2 x Screen Actors Guild Award, and Tony winner Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee and BAFTA, Cannes and Olivier winner Jessie Buckley as Sally Bowles.
They were joined by Omari Douglas (It’s A Sin) as Cliff Bradshaw, Olivier winner Liza Sadovy as Fräulein Schneider, Olivier winner Elliot Levey as Herr Schulz, Stewart Clarke as Ernst Ludwig, and Anna-Jane Casey (first London revival of Sunday in the Park; first UK tour of Calendar Girls) as Fräulein Kost.
Redmayne, Buckley, Sadovy and Levey all won their Oliviers for starring in this production, so their replacements had big boots to fill – and they’ve all filled them so well that they’re about to burst out of them!
Fra Fee is freakishly fantastic as Emcee. Fee is known for starring in the film version of Les Misérables, the original cast of The Ferryman (for which he won a WhatsOnStage Award), Amazon Studios’ Cinderella, Hawkeye, and RebelMoon. Now, Emcee is sure to be one of his most memorable roles.
As aforementioned, Olivier nominee Amy Lennox’s rendition of ‘Cabaret’ is a sight to see, but whenever she appears onstage, one can never take their eyes off of her. She offers a sympathetic yet frustrating portrayal of the iconic Sally Bowles.
Lennox is known for starring in the original West End cast of Legally Blonde, the original UK tour of 9 to 5, Wrong Turn 5, Shetland, the original West End cast of Kinky Boots (for which she was nominated for an Olivier), the original London production of Lazarus, and Holby City. This role, however, is career-defining.
Omar Baroud is thoroughly likeable as Clifford Bradshaw; he is, arguably, the most likeable and realistic character in the play – thanks, in large part, to Baroud’s considered portrayal.
The doomed lovers, Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schulz, are now played by the wonderful Vivien Parry and Richard Katz. They serve as (two halves of) the heart of the musical – and when that heart is broken, the show loses the little optimism it had left.
Original cast-members Clarke and Casey are still with the production – and for good reason: Ludwig excels at playing a character that is representative of the Third Reich – especially during that twist – whilst Casey is fabulous as the morally dubious, yet undeniably likeable, Kost.
The ensemble and prologue performers are all captivating. They perfectly embody numerous qualities – from sexual transgression to political aggression – and work hard to capture the essence of the story, both individually and collectively.
This production of Cabaret has little set, instead relying on choreography to set the scene and tell the story – à la Chicago.
The choreography-heavy opening number, ‘Willkommen’, is a bold, bodacious beginning to a most marvellous musical. Whilst Cabaret usually has a larger ensemble, which allows the final chorus of ‘Willkommen’ to be a real riot – and very Broadway – this production relies on the mechanics of the small stage to create a “big” number. The stage, though small, operates in three parts – there is the possibility of creating three tiers, like a birthday cake – and even spins around.
The production welcomed us to the Kit Kat Club the second we entered the sparkling staircase to the basement – but this number entrapped us!
Cabaret‘s choreography relies not just on dance but also movement. This production, in particular, relies heavily on movement – with the ensemble making sensual shapes and getting into creepy positions. Julia Cheng deserves great praise for her writhing, frenetic choreography.
Tom Scutt’s set and costume design is incredible. Whilst the set is relatively simple, especially by West End standards, Scutt succeeds in making it eye-catching – and turning it into the Kit Kat Club. The costumes, though, are anything but simple; the colours and textures are soft and tame, but the designs are extravagant and outlandish.
However, as the musical draws to a close, the vivacious individuality of the costumes is brought to an understated uniformity. The palette becomes grey, brown and, at best, khaki – a representation for not only the dark days that were to come but the conformity that the Nazis demanded of their denizens. The production literally ends with every single cast-member in a simple suit. Gone are the dazzling days of dandy debauchery. Gone are the optimism, celebration, and artistry; they have been replaced with cynicism, nihilism, and destruction.
Transformation is, indeed, an important theme in Cabaret. People change – they must, in order to survive. Transformation is sometimes shown more obviously – e.g. Fraulein Schneider calling off her marriage to Herr Schultz when she realises that marrying a Jewish man will be unsafe – and other times, it is more subtle.
Take Emcee, who arguably represents the soul of Germany, transforming through costume and performance. At first, a boy in braces, donning a party hat, then a masked and armed Pierrot, and, finally, a blond conformer, singing a different tune – literally. Is he being indoctrinated, or is he just trying to survive? In Act 1, he sings the White supremacist tune ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ with a subdued passion – a turning point for the character.
Act 1 ends with the group performance of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’. This is one song that I actually think the film gets better – first sang by a member of the Nazi youth, before more and more adults join in (representing the journey of indoctrination), as an elderly man watches on in horror – knowing that this has happened before.
However, the movie tells quite a different story, and having Fräulein Kost and Ernst Ludwig sing ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ at the party for Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz works perfectly.
I am pretty sure that the last production I saw ended with most of the cast doing a Nazi salute at the end of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’, a horrifying end to the act that signalled the darkness that was yet to come – but a little on-the-nose. This production was more subtle; it elegantly showed how people are indoctrinated over time – one does not just wake up one day, chant ‘Sieg Heil’, and call for the extermination of an entire ethnoreligious group. Rather, hatred is taught and learned.
Indeed, the quiet domesticity of this version (what with it being sang in Fräulein Schneider’s home) makes the song all the more chilling and insidious, for it reflects the Nazi infiltration of Germany – how quickly and easily the Nazis spread their propaganda, converted seemingly ordinary Germans, and seized power.
Whilst the first act is a whopping 1 hour and 45 minutes, it flies by. The second act is much, much shorter – and thank goodness, for it is harrowing.
It, of course, reaches its climax with its title song. I included ‘Cabaret’ in my article about misunderstood musical theatre songs. Ostensibly, the song seems to channel themes of carpe diem (seize the day) and enjoying life. In actuality, Sally is not living life to its fullest; she is ignoring reality.
Olivier nominee Amy Lennox’s interpretation of this classic song is far from the flawless number sang by Liza Minnelli in the film adaptation – but that version is largely why the song is so misunderstood. The film version, though phenomenal, was largely a vehicle for Minnelli to showcase her star quality – even though Sally is supposed to be a mediocre singer.
Lennox, a spectacular singer, succeeds at “good bad” singing. Her rendition of ‘Cabaret’ is reminiscent of ‘Rose’s Turn’ in Gypsy – a near-flawless nervous breakdown, with Sally realising her troubles but preferring to live in denial and just enjoy life whilst she can, with a Hedonistic philosophy of sorts.
The musical doesn’t have any problems, per se, but I do wonder if other productions, whilst indisputably inferior, did a better job at three important moments.
First of all, the script omits two changes seen in recent UK productions – one of which I think worked better; the other change is a matter of interpretation.
At the beginning of ‘Willkommen’, Emcee says, “In here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful!” – omitting the line that has appeared in recent UK productions, “The boys are beautiful”. This production is unashamedly queer – indeed, venues like the Kit Kat Club were often a sanctuary for those society would deem sexual deviants – and whilst Fra Fee’s Emcee is as straight as a bendy ruler, that additional line signals the unashamed homoeroticism that is yet to come. Then again, perhaps Emcee pretending to be straight (and hiding his sexuality) is part of the joke.
Traditionally, the musical ends with the ensemble reprising ‘Willkommen’, but the song is now harsh and discordant. The Emcee sings, “Auf Wiedersehen… à bientôt…” followed by a crescendo-ing drum roll and a cymbal crash.
Several productions feature a finale with a white space flashing with a strobe effect, implying the cabaret performers – except for Sally who is not standing in the white space – will fall victim to Nazi atrocities towards the Jews and homosexuals.
Some productions make it even more explicit – the touring production I caught a few years back saw the Emcee and the ensemble wear blue and white striped pyjamas, with yellow stars (and, in the case of the Emcee, a pink triangle), before stripping. It was made explicitly clear that the cabaret troupe had not only been persecuted by the Nazis but had, in fact, been sent to a gas chamber.
It’s an especially dark ending, one which makes the audience pause before applauding, but perhaps a little too provocative. This new production thinks that less is more – and it achieves a powerful, bleak, goosebump-inducing ending without recreating a death camp.
Then there is a musical change. Whilst ‘Maybe this Time’ traditionally ends with a roar (before the last line is sang more softly), this version rids the powerful song of its climax – and thus, decreases its desperation (in favour of showing a softer side to Sally). It still works; it’s just disappointing to hear the build up to the song’s climax but then never actually reach said climax. It almost feels like a tease.
Other than that, the production is perfect. It swept the Oliviers earlier this year, winning Best Revival, Director, Sound Design, and all four musical acting categories! Every single one of those awards is deserved because this truly is one of the greatest pieces of theatre one will ever see.
Whilst the production has been critically acclaimed and showered with praise from audiences, it has received sharp criticism for its high prices. Is it worth £350 a ticket? Of course not – in fact, I can’t think of a single show that is worth that much, and I’ve seen just about everything.
If you have the money to spare and want to really treat yourself to top tickets to a West End show, then Cabaret is probably the right call. But if you are not willing to spend quite so much, do not worry, for tickets vary greatly in price – starting at £30 in the upper circle! According to reviews on SeatPlan, upper circle seats at the Kit Kat Club still offer an incredible view, because the theatre is small, intimate, and well-designed.
So, whether you want to splash out or save money, Cabaret welcomes you to the Kit Kat Club for a few hours of decadence, debauchery – and devastation.
Life is a cabaret, old chum – come to the cabaret…
Cabaret has recently had its run at the Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse extended until 7th January 2023.
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