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Broadway Review: ‘Cabaret’ Starring Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming

Cumming owns the debauched role of the Emcee in this redux of the dazzling 1998 revival, but Williams falters in her early scenes as Sally Bowles.

With:
Alan Cumming, Michelle Williams, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Bill Heck, Aaron Krohn, Gayle Rankin.

Alan Cumming must have sold his soul to the devil to acquire his divinely debauched persona as the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub in “Cabaret.” It seemed nuts but proved shrewd of Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall to retool their dazzling 1998 revival of the Kander and Ebb masterpiece, fit Cumming with a new trenchcoat for his triumphant return, and bring the decadent netherworld of 1920s Berlin back to Studio 54, the revival’s ideal venue. Inspiration flagged, however, in casting Michelle Williams, so soft and vulnerable in “My Week With Marilyn,” as wild and reckless party girl Sally Bowles.

Smoking is verboten at Studio 54. The wait staff is not as scantily clad as the louche boys and girls at the Kit Kat Klub. The patrons aren’t even doing lines on the tables. But other aspects of this infamous club’s setting — the glitzy design of the house, the cabaret seating and drinks service, and the superb audio system for the fantastic onstage band — contribute to the show’s illusion that going out clubbing can still mean living dangerously.

Living dangerously isn’t the intention of Cliff Bradshaw (Bill Heck) when he arrives in Berlin in 1929 with an unfinished novel and no means of support. Tall, handsome and assured, Heck gives the starving artist a good shot of can-do American spirit. And thanks to a chance encounter on a train with Ernst Ludwig (the well-cast Aaron Krohn), a German businessman whose business happens to be smuggling luxury goods from Paris, he soon has an affordable room, some students to tutor in English and an introduction to Berlin’s dissolute nightlife scene.

There is definitely a dangerous vibe at the Kit Kat Klub, where the Emcee’s sardonic introduction (“Willkommen”) sends shivers up the spine. The band has a killer style (the bawdy drumbeat is sexy, the wailing brass downright dirty), which the immaculate sound system designed by Brian Ronan projects into the house with stunning clarity. And in the intimate lighting, the chorus dancers look as if they’d be up for hire after the show.

This is the sleazy milieu in which that endearing English tart, Sally Bowles (Williams), makes her stage entrance in “Don’t Tell Mama.” In this suggestive narrative ditty, Fred Ebb’s cunning lyrics invite prurient males to imagine getting into the “lacy pants” that this little convent girl is wearing under her school uniform. But someone neglected to tell Williams that Sally is playing a sexy tease in this number — and an actual slut in her encore, “Mein Herr.” Although she sings with more artistry than you’d expect from Sally, the sweet-faced thesp doesn’t get her girlish sexiness, projecting instead the wide-eyed innocence of an actual English schoolgirl.

That vulnerable quality serves her well when Sally’s party-girl persona begins to crack, allowing her to pour her heart into “Maybe This Time.” And once Sally’s defenses are completely stripped away, she can channel all her desperation into the stirring title song. But just from the awkward way that she calls attention to Sally’s eccentric green nail polish to show how naughty she is, it’s obvious that this ladylike thesp isn’t comfortable in the skin of this impulsive, irresponsible and utterly irresistible girl.

Outside the Kit Kat Klub, the songs drop their sharply satiric edge to speak directly to character, most memorably in the bittersweet romance of Herr Schultz, the Jewish fruit merchant played by the wonderful Danny Burstein, and Fraulein Schultz, the elderly rooming-house landlady played by the wonderful Linda Emond. In that most tender of love songs, “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” a fresh pineapple becomes the token of their love.

As staged with sinister style on the small stage, the painfully beautiful and altogether chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” speaks more succinctly than any book scene about the encroachment of Nazi politics into Berlin society. And when friend turns on neighbor with hatred, Emond voices Fraulein Schneider’s despair in her impassioned delivery of “What Would You Do?”

Meanwhile, back in the Kit Kat Klub, where the Nazis have been coming out from the shadows, the cabaret songs are getting darker and darker and the Emcee’s makeup more ghoulish. In “If You Could See Her,” Cumming seems to reach for satanic inspiration to deliver Ebb’s depth charge of a final lyric. In his relish for the role, Cumming has made it his own, and since he’s so very, very good at being so very, very bad, he can keep it forever.

Broadway Review: 'Cabaret' Starring Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming

Studio 54; 888 seats; $162 top. Opened April 24, 2014. Reviewed April 20. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production: A Roundabout Theater Company production of a musical in two acts, based on a play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood, with a book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, and lyrics by Fred Ebb.

Creative: Directed by Sam Mendes. Co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall. Sets and club design, Robert Brill; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Peggy Eisenhauer & Mike Baldassari; sound, Brian Ronan; hair and wigs, Paul Huntley; makeup, Angelina Avallone; dialect coach, Deborah Hecht; musical director and vocal arranger, Patrick Vaccariello; orchestrations, Michael Gibson; dance and incidental music, David Krane; original music coordinator, John Monaco; production stage manager, Arthur Gaffin.

Cast: Alan Cumming, Michelle Williams, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Bill Heck, Aaron Krohn, Gayle Rankin.

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