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Cabaret Plays On, at Studio 54

by Jacques le Sourd

The Journal News
October 28, 1999

Cabaret has gone beyond being a revival. It's a phenomenon. Nineteen months into its life on Broadway, it is the closest thing to a perfect musical experience that you can get right now.

Every major cast member has been replaced with somebody better than the original. Now the roles are not just well acted, they are superbly sung, too. The show is in a large new venue - Studio 54, the former 1970s discotheque - which has been fitted with small cabaret tables with a sea of tiny red lampshades that stretch right up into the balcony.

The show has the dubious honor of having the highest top ticket price on Broadway - a heart-stopping $90 - but it gives the best value for the dollar. In other words, it's worth it. This production certainly has had some ups and downs, but it is amazingly well turned out at the moment.

Cabaret is the gritty rethinking of the 1966 John Kander and Fred Ebb show, based on Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories. The time is the final seconds of the Weimar Republic, before the Nazis sweep everything away. It was a good film directed by Bob Fosse in 1972. The director of the theaterversion is Sam Mendes, who recently made his film debut with the incendiary American Beauty.

The first face the audience sees at Studio 54 is that of the emcee, a part created so memorably by Joel Grey and valuably reinterpreted by Alan Cumming. The new emcee creates a completely different impression: Michael Hall (Corpus Christi) is making his Broadway debut here, and he is a genuine hunk. The bright-red lipstick and scant contraption of suspenders designed by William Ivey Long only underscores the character's physicality. Where Cumming gave off unwholesomeness, Hall radiates sex, but also a deep sadness. It's a haunting portrayal, and ultimately a more troubling one.

Michael Hayden now plays Clifford Bradshaw, the American novelist who is the narrator of the piece. The star of Carousel and Far East brings his sizzlingly intense persona to the role. He is also is the first actor who really acts the part: You literally watch the toll that the Berlin life takes on him from the first scene onwards. He also establishes a force field of erotic attraction to Sally Bowles, while allowing himself some bisexual interest in the chorus boy Bobby (Michael O'Donnell). This Clifford almost loses himself in the Berlin maelstrom, and it's a scary and thrilling ride: Hayden creates another indelible impression of a character.

The show finally has a Sally Bowles who can both act and really sing: Susan Egan. The singer from Beauty and the Beast surprisingly finds a new dimension of real strength and presence here; she's heading straight for disaster, of course, but she doesn't care. She's more believable and more likeable than Natasha Richardson, and when she belts out the show's two great torch songs - "Maybe This Time" (actually written for the movie) and the heavily ironic "Cabaret" - they move you as they did not before. Unlike her predecessors, she makes Liza Minnelli a distant (and irrelevant) memory.

But that ain't all.

Carole Shelley is magical as the new Fraulein Schneider, the landlady who sings "So What" and "What Would You Do?" She is watching her world crumble too, of course, but we have the feeling she will survive by pure grit. That means, sadly, giving up the love of the Jewish fruit merchant who courts her with pineapples, Herr Schultz, whose days are seriously numbered.

This part right now is movingly played by Laurence Luckinbill of Katonah, but on Nov. 9 Dick Latessa takes over. Also, Martin Moran steps into the part of Ernst Ludwig, the snaky low-level Nazi agent whose identity is only revealed near the end of Act 1, in a chilling moment. Michael Stuhlbarg, the current Ernst Ludwig, does not quite erase the remarkable memory of Denis O'Hare in the role, but he is quite fine.

Victoria Clark (Titanic) similarly has big shoes to fill replacing Michelle Pawk as Fraulein Kost, the rooming-house prostitute, but she fills them spectacularly well. Several members of the remarkably ambidextrous chorus remain, to dance, sing and play the orchestral instruments in a striking (and working) George Grosz tableau. Rob Marshall co-directed and choreographed the piece. Robert Brill designed the set and the club, which looks both snug and spiffy with its many tables. The excellent lighting design is by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari.

This is a dark and chilling musical that may surprise those looking for an upbeat night on the town. But its rewards are ultimately richer. What is intact is the frisson of a world about to explode, with no looking back.