Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret is a strange musical. Set in Berlin on the eve of the Nazi party’s rise in political power, it is a hodgepodge of love, passion and vice. Done wrong and it’s a tangled mess with gratuitous sex, violence and offensive ideas; done right and it is one of the most provocative scripts from the 20th century.
The story follows the misadventures of Sally Bowles and Clifford Bradshaw. She is an aspiring singer/actress free-spirit who openly jumps into bed with numerous lovers; he is a budding writer and shy idealist struggling with his sexuality. They befriend numerous people, including an enterprising prostitute, a business man with underground dealings and an older couple in the middle of a romance. All of this is given sarcastic musical commentary by Emcee, the headliner of Berlin’s swinging Kit Kat Club.
Anyone only familiar with the film will be surprised by the stage production. Unlike the film, musical numbers are found throughout and not just within the Kit Kat Club. Also, all of the characters are different, some radically.
Taking centre stage is Samantha Barks, one of the favourites from BBC’s I’d Do Anything from last year. Sally is one of the hardest roles in musical theatre, and the shadow of Liza Minnelli will forever loom over any actress taking the part. To her credit, Barks is quite good, especially as this is her first professional job. She’s a better singer than an actress, but she mostly shines and shows great potential as a future leading lady to be reckoned with.
Wayne Sleep as Emcee is, unfortunately, a disappointment. He doesn’t do anything wrong, but the role requires an actor to take full charge whenever they come on. Sleep seems like he’s just going through the motions, getting through the performance with cheeky comments and (predictably) some fancy dance moves.
The rest of the cast are mostly good. Henry Luxemburg’s accent belongs in a Tennessee Williams play but he performs the role of Clifford well, and Jenny Logan and Matt Zimmerman are excellent as doomed senior lovers Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz.
As for the direction, Rufus Norris’s work is slick but feels burdened with kid gloves. It has fun with raunchiness and hints at the growing menace of Nazism but fails to show the full horror of the unfolding events. Only the final scene highlights the production’s potential, with a stark landscape, most of the characters looking shell-shocked and a final haunting image which feels cruel rather than affecting. It’s fine work, but it is not as insightful as it could have been.
Cabaret is a good production of an excellent musical. It has some solid performances and moments, even though it misses out on completely embodying the show’s full potential to be relevant and poignant.
Until March 28 at the Playhouse in Edinburgh, then from March 30 to April 4 at Theatre Royal in Glasgow.
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