Not content with recently making the most successful James Bond film ever and directing Simon Russell Beale in the National Theatre's hit production of King Lear, Sam Mendes is now at the stage where he's reviving his revivals.
Mendes' sleazily playful take on the 1966 Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret began life at the Donmar Warehouse in 1993 before being staged on Broadway in 1998 by the Roundabout Theatre Company. That production, which Mendes co-directed with Rob Marshall, played for six years, outrunning the original.
Now the Roundabout have persuaded Mendes and Marshall to bring Emcee, Sally Bowles and the decadent denizens of the Kit Kat Club in 1930s Weimar Berlin - inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and John Van Druten's play I am a Camera - back to Broadway. They've returned to Studio 54 which has once again impressively been transformed into an inter-war cabaret nightclub with a stripped-down stage.
Right from his first "Wilkommen" it seems like Alan Cumming, who has played the master of ceremonies of the Kit Kat Klub throughout Mendes' various productions, is out to atone for ever having deviated from the role of a lifetime. He makes for a mesmeric, sexually charged Emcee. For all his sly winks and seedy excess, the formidable Cumming intrudes on scenes in such a commanding fashion that he's as much party crasher as host, patrolling proceedings as though he'll be in Studio 54 for time immemorial.
If only the thrice-Oscar nominated Michelle Williams, making her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles, conveyed anything like his dramatic force. Bowles is on her third life having been a northern English mill owner's daughter and a Chelsea girl. But William's jaunty vocal delivery and lack of sexuality renders what is supposed to be a washed-up cabaret singer devoid of depth.
Sure Williams sings fine - she especially proves this with "Maybe This Time" and "Cabaret" - and frowns well, but her Sally Bowles lacks desperation and edge to the extent you can't help but wonder why she didn't walk straight past the Kit Kat Klub in favour of safer terrain. It can't be easy following acclaimed performances in the part by Liza Minnelli on screen and Natasha Richardson and Anna Maxwell Martin on stage. But her good-time girl is having too good a time.
Furthermore the doomed relationship between Bowles and American writer Cliff Bradshaw is hampered by an absence of chemistry between Williams and Bill Heck. The affecting romance instead is supplied by that between Fräulein Schneider, who runs the boarding house that Sally and Cliff stay in, and Jewish grocer Herr Schultz, played by Linda Edmond and Danny Burstein respectively.
The Broadway spectacle that Mendes and Marshall bring to Cabaret effectively contrasts with its sinister setting that enhances the Kit Kat Club's debauched goings-on as a powerful metaphor for the impending rise of Nazism. But in this uneven production, the bold theatricality and technical flair of the show is undermined by too many of its leading players being insufficiently intimate (Cumming being the glorious exception).
"Governments come and Governments go," observes Herr Schultz as he ruefully observes Fascism on the rise. Since John Major was Prime Minister when Mendes first staged Cabaret, it's laudable that he's brought the musical back for a new era. I belong to the generation that missed it then but for all the fun to be had here, I can't help wishing I'd been on the guest list for this Kit Kat Club last time around.
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