They both have one word titles, beginning with the letter “c,” and they were written by John Kander and Fred Ebb. “Cabaret,” however, is not “Chicago.” Marcia Milgrom Dodge directs the former as if it were all bright lights and windy city with flappers right out of the Roaring Twenties. When the Nazis finally make their belated appearance at the end of act one, you half expect cops with machine guns to raid the place.
It’s odd seeing a Berlin club turned into a speakeasy. Something of the reverse happened when Bob Fosse staged the original Broadway production of “Chicago” in 1975. Hot off the movie “Cabaret,” he brought a “Blue Angel” look to the new Kander and Ebb show, with the girls wearing top hats and the boys swinging tassels from their nipples. Auds felt the disconnect and the show played only two years on Broadway. Today, in its current pared-down revival, the tuner is well into its 15th year.
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But back to “Cabaret” at Reprise. Sally Bowles (Lisa O’Hare) doesn’t get to say “divine decadence” in Joe Masteroff’s version, and that’s not all that’s missing underneath all the giddy good-times glare at the Freud Playhouse. Would somebody please turn up the dark?! John Iacovelli’s gawdy set and Kate Bergh’s sparkly costumes don’t help. As for Dodge, she helmed a provincial Broadway revival of “Ragtime” in 2009, and she’s no better with her actors or staging here.
The Kit Kat Klub stage was the German world in Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall’s definitive Roundabout production. Here, Dodge often separates the club from the outside with monolithic columns of curtains. Worse, what’s happening either upstage or downstage is all brass band; there’s no bronze finish. Forget about any patina of decay.
O’Hare’s strident Sally lacks vulnerability. Jeff McLean’s wandering Clifford resembles one of those Joe College types William Haines played in a dozen silent movies before he became Hollywood’s favorite interior decorator. But it’s hard to believe that this Christopher Isherwood stand-in has ever been east of Omaha, much less seen London, Venice and now Berlin.
As the Emcee, Bryce Ryness is blessed with a face that Grosz could love. Otherwise, he’s pretty much a standard-issue Emcee, epicene and oily, but he does have a couple of great silent moments: When he’s not performing, he turns into a different man entirely. We can’t quite tell what kind of man, but considering the environment outside the club doors, he’s probably not into just collecting china.
In Dodge’s cartoon Kit Kat Klub, the dancers’ crossdressing and the gay boys’ flirtations and Sally’s promiscuity are all just so many cute distractions to drown out the Nazi noise. (Act one ends with the cliche of a Hitler harangue over the loudspeakers.) Nowhere is there any indication that Berlin cabarets were one of the few places left in Germany to be free.
When the Nazis arrive, it’s pretty much just to clean up the joint.