“Sally, wake up! The party’s over!” says Clifford Bradshaw to his unlikely lover, Sally Bowles, toward the end of Cabaret. “It was lots of fun—but now it’s over.” An ambisexual American novelist visiting Berlin in the early 1930s, Cliff is referring to the heedless hedonism of the Weimar era, which is about to be snuffed by the rise of the Nazis. But he could just as well be talking about Cabaret itself, a perfectly marvelous Broadway revival that is scheduled to close on March 29 and whose energy now calls to mind the sleepy final stretch of a long and vibrant bash.
Let me say up front that I love this Cabaret. I loved it when it opened in 1998, starring Alan Cumming as the impishly sinister Emcee and Natasha Richardson as Sally, and I loved it when it returned last March, with Cumming reprising his role. In my five-star review for the show, I called it “a superb production of one of the great Broadway musicals of all time—an exhilarating, harrowing masterpiece.” In many ways, it remains so: The production itself, directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, is still a knockout, and the principal cast is largely unchanged—with one major exception.
Time takes its toll in any long run, especially for shows with serious themes, like Cabaret, which can't just coast on Broadway salesmanship. And the inevitable tiredness that sets in after months of repetition is exacerbated, in this case, by the enervating presence of Sienna Miller, who is now playing Sally—madcap, desperate, self-deluded Sally, second-rate chanteuse at the seedy Kit Kat Klub. Hollywood slender and English-accented, Miller is a capable actor who does not embarrass herself in any way in the role, but that’s part of the problem. She doesn’t take the kind of risks that might lead to embarrassment.
Sally should not be a great singer—Liza Minnelli’s sensational vocals in the movie version notwithstanding—but she does need a spark of personality. Michelle Williams, who opened the show last year, lacked charisma in the role but had a powerful vulnerability; Emma Stone, who took it over from her for a few months, was staggeringly good, with a manic, cokey drive at the start of the show and heartbreaking, trapped disillusion at the end. Miller, by contrast, is wan to the point of disappearance. She’s there in body but not in spirit, which takes a toll on her scenes with Bill Heck, whose Cliff now joins her in blandness. Even during Sally’s big numbers, I found my attention wandering to other aspects of the production. I don’t think that in my previous six visits to Cabaret I had ever paid quite so much notice to the choreography of the back-up girls in “Mein Herr,” for example, or the orchestra in “Maybe This Time.”
The production is so richly rendered that there remains plenty to look at. If Cumming’s verve has flagged a bit since the bump it got with Stone, his turn as the Emcee remains one of the great male star performances in recent Broadway history. (Even his slightly rote quality, when it appears, is defensible as a character choice; the Emcee, after all, performs his numbers every night.) As the older couple in the B plot, Linda Emond and Danny Burstein are as compelling as ever; Emond’s rueful “What Would You Do?,” one of the musical’s weakest songs, is now among the production’s highlights.
So Cabaret is still worth seeing, especially if you haven’t seen it yet. Just prepare for a Sally who is quite a bit less “mysterious and fascinating” than Sally believes herself to be. Toward the end of the first act, when Cliff’s friend Ernst (the very fine Aaron Krohn) teases Cliff and Sally about their plans for a domestic life together, Sally replies: “Who knows? I mean—Cliff and I may just turn out to be the two most utterly boring people you ever met!” At this line, I couldn’t resist leaning over to my theater companion and whispering, “Done!” But he didn’t hear me: Sometime during the previous scene, he had quietly nodded off.