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A CurtainUp London Review
What Rufus Norris gives us is a picture of a seamy, sordid and sleazy nightclub in 1930s Berlin where no one cares about anyone else and where in decadence, Fascism is allowed to flourish. James Dreyfus, blacked up around his mouth and eyes, is the Emcee, a world weary sleazeball, less perky and witty than Joel Grey, and absolutely compelling as a jaded performer. He also pops up as the railway ticket seller in a perfectly bored public servant role.
The support cast for the Kit Kat Club is magnificent, dancers all of whom can gyrate and pose provocatively, squatting, knees apart in Javier de Frutos’s imaginative reworking of Fosse’s great choreography. In a design coup, with a nod to Rocky Horror, Katrina Lindsay dresses the Kit Kat men (and girls) in tuxedos and black fishnets with suspenders. They are wearing Rif Raf’s makeup and Frank n’Furter’s clothes. It is very, very racy.
If there is a problem with this wonderful production, it rests with the casting of Anna Maxwell Martin as Sally Bowles. As Sally, l Martin is a fresh faced suburban girl but talk about her career as a nightclub singer is laughable because of her obvious lack of singing talent. I cannot believe that Rufus Norris did not do this intentionally. Sally Bowles is shallow and selfish but where do you go with a West End musical where the lead has a weak singing voice and is ineffectual and dislikeable? It isn’t what we were expecting and we may not be ready for it. Whatever the intention, the result is that we are seeing onstage someone who is more like the Sally Christopher Isherwood intended us to see. Sally is a mess: she is manipulative, takes drugs and drinks too much, she is sexually promiscuous, selfish and totally lacking in any self-awareness. I have Megan Hinds to thank for the following extract about the real person behind Sally Bowles in Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin.
"The character of Sally Bowles was modeled after nightclub singer Jean Ross, who starred in a stage production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. The play tells the tale of a Venetian courtesan, and Ross bragged that she not only simulated sex onstage, she actually carried out the acts in full view of the audience. Isherwood reportedly attended several shows with binoculars in tow to witness Ross' onstage escapades, but was never able to prove her claims. Ross and Isherwood were romantically linked for some time, but never married. Ross died in 1973."
I find it difficult to equate Maxwell Martin’s fresh Sunday School teacher looks with the sleazy Bowles. Her opening number as a nun in a white backless habit seems misjudged. Her blonde, waved perm is also a shock.
Sheila Hancock comes into her own as the landlady Fraulein Schneider and makes the most of songs some of which maybe were not in Fosse’s film. Whereas she is tall, Geoffrey Hutchings as Herr Schultz is short and they make an incongruous couple. Geoffrey Hutchings has a good singing voice and is endearing as the Jewish greengrocer whose passion for Fraulein Schneider is extinguished cruelly when she rejects him on racial grounds. Harriet Thorpe also puts in a good cameo as Fraulein Schneider’s lodger, the man eating Fraulein Kost. Michael Hayden, no stranger to New York audiences, presents a likeable and gentlemanly Clifford Bradshaw, an innocent American in this depraved European city.
This productionhas exciting design elements such as the camera eye which opens to reveal the Emcee. I also liked the set’s purple and black soaring wedges, assymetrical, dark and mysterious, club dancers behind bed frames of interlocking iron net used like cages, the enormous letters of CABARET ready to be toppled. There are many witty touches: Herr Schultz’s pineapple scene with a hula girl in the background. "Money, Money" > is sung without Sally by the Emcee in a padded fat man suit full of balloons which are popped to reveal the thin man under the inflationary hype. The Nazis chillingly beat people up and perform cartwheels symbolic of the roll they are on which makes them answerable to none.
I came away from Norris’ Cabaret thinking about the indignities suffered by Germany at the Treaty of Versailles, after a war which Germans widely perceived as just, and how the conditions were created which allowed 1930s Nationalism to take hold. How this shameful history ends we all know — in a Holocaust which taints all things German.
The first act closes with the uplifting anthem, a lone Nazi youth singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". Why is it that nationalist movements have all the best rousing tunes? But in a brilliant design coup, Norris has the cast step out of their coats and naked, ascend trees in a visual symbol of rebirth, of Aryan cleanliness and probity. This scene is emotively paralleled in the finale as naked bodies, huddling in the cold, with snow falling, witness to the actuality of the Aryan Dream, the murder and brutal suffering of millions of innocents.
Editor's Note: For a song list, see CurtainUp's review of Cabaret on Broadway
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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