Wasted Kit Kat Girls, crotch-grabbing choreography and a drugged-out Sally Bowles all set the tone for Sam Mendes’ darkly revisionist deconstruction of “Cabaret,” presented, cabaret-style, at the Kit Kat Klub (aka the Henry Miller Theatre, an actual 43rd Street burlesque). Musical-theater purists will lament the lack of legit voices and Broadway glamour. But bold and disturbing directorial strokes, intensely provocative performances and dollops of smoldering sexuality should ensure huge ongoing demand at a box office with only about 500 seats a night to sell.
The main difference between this truly astounding “Cabaret” and every other revival is that Mendes has made the director’s concept the principal attraction of the evening. Given that this redoubtable Kander & Ebb tuner has been a perennial star vehicle for the likes of Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli, this is no mean feat. Natasha Richardson may be the big name on the marquee here, but her vulnerable and understated performance makes no attempt to break out from the pervasive ensemble milieu.
Just like fellow Brit Nicholas Hytner, who found the human pain in the hitherto schmaltzy “Carousel,” Mendes is clearly trying to rescue what he sees as the dark soul of “Cabaret” from the layers of showbiz kitsch that have shrouded its sharp-edged portrait of decadent Berlin on the cusp of Nazi domination.
Mendes’ work is far from subtle. The crowd at the Kit Kat Klub is not the usual Broadway-beautiful collection of dancers: They look more like Calvin Klein models who have not slept for a week. They simulate sex acts behind a screen, pout and snarl at the audience. Alan Cumming’s sexually ambivalent Emcee has none of the usual Grey-style pizzazz — he’s too busy flashing the audience with a swastika tattooed on his rear end.
For most of an evening that’s not dull for a second (thanks in part to a thrilling set that includes all of Robert Brill’s trademark multiple levels and disappearing panels), Mendes’ ideas not only work very well, but have the effect of making one reconsider the dramaturgy of a Broadway masterpiece that has a narrative sophistication well beyond the more transitory appeal of its splashy production numbers.
We understand anew the pain of Fraulein Schneider (a terrific performance from Mary Louise Wilson). Michele Pawk’s deep-throated version of Fraulein Kost makes the hooker-turned-Nazi more terrifying than ever. John Benjamin Hickey’s Clifford is like a terrified deer caught in a confusing sensual trap. And Richardson’s emotive, anti-glamorous rendition of the celebrated titular number eschews cliche in favor of arresting emotional intensity.
Certainly, there are some trade-offs here. Neither Richardson nor Cumming is a great singer (and the ensemble is too busy doubling as the orchestra and shocking the punters to really get its collective throat around Kander’s luscious harmonies). One is also left with the sense that Mendes wished the whole show was set in a cabaret — he seems much less full of ideas when it comes to the more traditional book sections set inFraulein Schneider’s place.
But none of this will matter when it comes to this production’s commercial appeal. There’s enough thematic gravitas to please the arty crowd, even as those who are lamenting the lack of titillation in Times Square now have a new entertainment choice.
It’ll be an intoxicating cocktail for everyone, and (stars or no stars) the Roundabout will be able to fill the tables at the Kit Kat Klub until the apocalypse.