Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club

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Photo: Marc Brenner Review
What good is sitting alone in your room when you can be ensconced at the Kit Kat Club, or more accurately the extensively renovated August Wilson Theatre, now home to Rebecca Frecknall’s reconceived version of “Cabaret”? I could go on for paragraphs about what the theater looks like now, but it’s best if you see it for yourself.

As for this thought-provoking production of the legendary 1966 musical by Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb -- set in Germany at the beginning of the Nazi era – it is not a must-see on its own, but it is stunningly effective as drama, if a little less so musically.

In addition, it boasts a truly revelatory performance by Gayle Rankin as chanteuse Sally Bowles, incredibly heartbreaking turns by Bebe Neuwirth and Steven Skybell as the affianced landlady Fraulein Schneider and kindly Jewish grocer Herr Schultz, and an impressive ensemble led by the excellent Natascia Diaz as the strong-willed Fraulein Kost and the charismatic Henry Gottfried as the charming, serpent-like Ernst Ludwig. (As for Eddie Redmayne, the show’s top billed star, more on him later.)

Moreover, “Cabaret” is, as ever, a potent reminder that -- not so hard as it as to currently imagine -- the holocaust can happen again. For the record, though Frecknall does not use the chilling ending chosen by the last revival’s director (Sam Mendes), but the message is no less clear in her subtler telling. In fact, I think this warning (or is it a prophecy?) is this revival’s actual raison d’etre.

Meanwhile, the decision to transform the Wilson may be keeping in with other recent immersive experiences – here, complete with a lengthy “prologue” in which you can hear musical performances throughout the entire house for over an hour – but it also seems symbolic of the English belief that, dramatically, you always work from the outside in.

That’s also my best explanation for Redmayne’s miscalculated turn at the Emcee. Costumed by Tom Stutt (who is also responsible for the minimal set design) in an increasingly bizarre series of outfits, Redmayne starts the show clad as a demented marionette, then he’s a black latex-clad “dominatrix,” then he’s a clown who escaped from Stephen King’s “It.” Why? I have no real clue. In fact, Redmayne’s Emcee, both as written and performed, has no inner life and no actual identity.

Worse still, the production numbers that take place in the club are almost amateurish in every possible sense – Redmayne’s singing voice is wildly and unpleasantly rangy -- and ultimately serve as nothing more than almost obvious commentary on the scenes that precede or follow them.

Ah, but those scenes. Rankin (who played Fraulein Kost in the show’s 2014 revival) brings tremendous vulnerability to Sally, a woman whose life revolves around her need for approval, whether it be from the many men she sleeps with or the audiences at the Kit Kat Club. She talks about her great “talent,” but this Sally is no undiscovered star. One senses she’s aware of all her limitations, even as she refuses to let them stop her from pursuing some half-conceived dream.

Indeed, she almost thoughtlessly gives up a slightly more conventional life – complete with a baby -- with the bisexual American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Ato Blankson-Wood, mostly bland but who eventually brings pathos and power to an underwritten role) – in order to keep chasing them. And When Sally sings those chilling lines from the title tune that “I made my mind up back in Chelsea, when I go, I am going like Elsie,” you fully understand those lyrics as a true prophecy of a death foretold.

And make no mistake, Neuwirth and Skybell practically steal the show by drawing indelible portraits of two people, one comfortable with independence, one longing for codependence, who attempt to make an almost unfathomable commitment to each other. Their duets, “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married” are things of gentle beauty, and Neuwirth’s searing solos, “So What?” and “What Would You Do” are worth the price of admission.

True, not everything about this “Cabaret” is perfectly marvelous, but there’s more than enough to warrant a visit!

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 4/21/2024
Closing Open-ended

Theatre Info
August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019