Naive wannabe novelist Cliff, the sweetly ineffectual hero of “Cabaret,” is in no doubt about his new life in Berlin. “I love this,” he says. “It’s so tawdry and terrible and everyone’s having such a good time.” Auds may have a hard time agreeing with him, because in this new cold-eyed version there’s not only very little heart, there’s barely any hedonism. Director Rufus Norris pursues his bold, chilly approach with an unwavering sense of purpose, but that unvarying tone provides worrying proof that too much conviction can be a dangerous thing.
Norris is one of the U.K.’s fastest-rising talents. The hallmark of his previous work — including a passionate evocation of peasant life in the Young Vic’s “Peribanez” and a vast Danish family at war with itself in the U.K. hit “Festen” — has been his invigorating meshing of an ensemble with bold but simple design. But in this, his first musical, it looks as if the diverse demands of the form have defeated him.
For good and ill, the controlling tone is there in the design. The Emcee (an impressive performance of limitless sourness from a caustic James Dreyfus) makes his first appearance peering through a circle cut high up in the front cloth. That rises to reveal the Kit Kat Club, created by numerous perilously angled, triangular flats that slide across the space. It’s a look influenced by film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but the more the space is opened up, the less it feels like a club and more like a vast, soulless dance studio.
The big advantage is that Jean Kalman’s lighting is given room to create echoing, purple pools of loneliness amid the darkness. The downside is that almost every scene is shorn of its defining context.
The club scenes, with expert dancers kitted out in butt- and crotch-revealing bondage gear, all operate as display — as if auds are attending a ruthlessly staged audiovisual demonstration of how the soulless entertainment of ’30s Germany paved the way for the Nazis.
It’s all often brilliantly choreographed by contemporary dance specialist Javier De Frutos, in only his second musical, but the expressive potential is stifled. The intensely athletic and balletic steps and moves vary, but the intent remains the same throughout, which robs the material of engaging development.
Worse, the immensely skilled, if unerotic, choreography dwarfs everything Sally tries to do.
Norris’s taste for ensemble work has led him to rebalance the show, not to its advantage. That much is clear from the casting of Sally, a role unfairly overshadowed by Liza Minnelli who, in Fosse’s celebrated movie rewrite, was brilliantly wrong: You wondered what on earth this girl was doing mainlining misery in a downtown Berlin dive when she ought be headlining on Broadway.
Heading firmly in the opposite direction, Norris has cast Anna Maxwell Martin, who won last year’s lead actress BAFTA for her performance as doughty, put-upon Esther in the BBC “Bleak House.”
As in the original conception of the role, her Sally is a rather hopeless, well-brought-up young Englishwoman — “the toast of Mayfair” — in search of decadence. Yet Maxwell Martin’s intermittent attempts at an upper-class accent are wholly artificial. She chooses to play Sally as not so much a fish out of water, but a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, an interp that arrives with her first appearance and leaves her absolutely nowhere to go.
Sally’s hyperactive neediness has to be balanced by something that allows us to understand why Cliff falls in love with her. Previous productions have supplied that via her perfs in the club. But this is Maxwell Martin’s musical theater debut, and neither her voice nor presence are strong enough to carry the emotional heft of the numbers.
Even more problematically, Norris inserts “Maybe This Time” from the movie. Staged away from the club, this is the moment where her private passion has to flower. Maxwell Martin wisely chooses to avoid the Minnelli belt, but her voice lacks the warmth to disarm and charm with the poignancy she’s aiming for. Thus the moment goes for nothing.
All of which leaves her relationship with Cliff in limbo. Michael Hayden tries to cover the distance between them with an unnaturally vigorous perf in a role that can’t take the strain; fatally, the connection between them never makes emotional sense.
Norris’ trump card is his handling of the Nazi threat. Tableaux at the end of each act use nudity in a powerful way. The first arises out of a beautifully sung “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in which cast members facing upstage are revealed in naked physical perfection like a nightmarish poster for Hitler youth. At the close, the cast quietly strips upstage to huddle naked and shivering in the falling snow at a concentration camp.
It’s an audacious move, consistent within Norris’ vision, but its inevitability stifles its power. This hasn’t stopped several U.K. critics from hailing the production as a kind of triumph, the rediscovery of the musical as political. But when wasn’t “Cabaret” political? Maybe it’s because Sam Mendes’ Donmar production was so little seen here, having never transferred to the West End en route to its immensely successful Broadway revamp.
The fact that there’s more true poignancy in the quietly acted scenes with elderly landlady Fraulein Schneider (Sheila Hancock) serves as an unintentional indictment of the overly determined production that surrounds her.