Liza spoiled it for everyone with her thrilling perf as Sally Bowles, the flamboyant party girl in “Cabaret.” Although her pitiful musical talents are the least of the services Sally offers patrons of the Kit Kat Klub, Minnelli’s star turn still bedevils femme thesps trying to play Sally as the amateurish entertainer she is. That also applies to It Girl Emma Stone, who’s taken over from Michelle Williams in the current Roundabout revival. But the red-headed beauty has found a good way to put her own personal stamp on the role — she acts the hell out of it.
There’s more to Sally Bowles than the wild child who fled boring old England for the danger and decadence of Weimar Berlin. Underneath the persona of the naughty girl who made a career of singing and dancing and prostituting herself at the Kit Kat Club is a vulnerable young woman out of her depth in this wicked city, terrified of being broke, of being without a man, of being alone. That’s the Sally that Michelle Williams played in her pink baby-doll outfits.
Barely acknowledging that side of Sally, Stone goes straight to the little tramp who immediately took to the divinely decadent society of underworld Berlin. Stone’s Sally loves the attention she got as “The Toast of Mayfair.” The parties, the gifts, the cocaine, the sex — it’s all great fun, until it isn’t. This savvy Sally is no innocent outsider, but very much one of the Kit Kat Girls in “Mein Herr,” slutty and predatory and scary as hell.
Once things turn ugly, Sally loses her edge and becomes frantic, latching onto Cliff Bradshaw, the kind-hearted but naive American played (quite well) by Bill Heck, and hanging on for dear life. That’s where Stone plays Sally, dancing on the edge of desperation and too scared to look down. It’s a bit narrow as an emotional platform, but a smart choice for her acting skills, the perfect fit for her sharp intelligence and kinetic energy.
While Stone is even less of a singer than Williams, she acts her way out of every tight spot. When Sally dares to hope that there’s a future for her and Cliff, Stone makes “Maybe This Time” a cry that comes right from the heart. And when those hopes turn to ashes, Stone pours all that pain and rage and despair into her electrifying delivery of “Cabaret.” Not too shabby for a non-singer, and exactly what you’d expect from a real actor.
It’s hard to tell whether the show was smartened up for Stone’s entry, but it’s a well-oiled machine. As the decadent Emcee of the Kit Kat Club, Alan Cumming is having the time of his life playing to the audience, which is mad for him. But if he has somehow grown larger than his role, the rest of the company seems to have made a pact with the gods of discipline.
As the ill-fated older lovers Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, Linda Emond and Danny Burstein are looking more and more like the Lunts of the Broadway musical theater. There seem to be no limits to Gayle Rankin’s skills; she’s funny and frightening as the house prostitute Fraulein Kost and truly formidable when she begins the choral singing on “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”
And as the Emcee keeps telling us, the Kit Kat Orchestra really is quite beautiful.