Eddie Redmayne in Cabaret
Photograph: Courtesy Marc BrennerCabaret
  • Theater, Musicals
  • August Wilson Theatre, Midtown West
  • Open run

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club


Time Out says

Broadway review by Adam Feldman 

Great expectations can be a problem when you’re seeing a Broadway show: You don’t always get what you hope for. It’s all too easy to expect great things when the show is a masterpiece like Cabaret: an exhilarating and ultimately chilling depiction of Berlin in the early 1930s that has been made into a classic movie and was revived exquisitely less than a decade ago. The risk of disappointment is even larger when the cast includes many actors you admire—led by Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee of the show’s decadent Kit Kat Club—and when the production arrives, as this one has, on a wave of raves from London. To guard against this problem, I made an active effort to lower my expectations before seeing the latest version of Cabaret. But my lowered expectations failed. They weren’t low enough.

Cabaret | Photograph: Courtesy Marc Brenner

So it is in the spirit of helpfulness that I offer the following thoughts on expectation management to anyone planning to see the much-hyped and very pricey new Cabaret, which is currently selling out with the highest average ticket price on Broadway. There are things to enjoy in this production, to be sure, but they’re not necessarily the usual things. Don’t expect an emotionally compelling account of Joe Masteroff’s script (based on stories by Christopher Isherwood and John Van Druten’s nonmusical adaptation of them, I Am a Camera); this production’s focus is elsewhere. Don’t expect appealing versions of the songs in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s timeless score; they are mostly not well sung, sometimes on purpose, and they lean too hard on the same formula: Start at a snail’s pace, build to a scream.

Above all, don’t expect to be immersed in the world of the show. This last caution is the biggest surprise, because director Rebecca Frecknall’s central gimmick is to situate Cabaret within a larger nightclub-like atmosphere; the words at the Kit Kat Club have even been grafted onto the title. Designer Tom Scutt has reconfigured the August Wilson Theatre, at evident expense, into a multifloor environmental experience for the audience, which is invited to arrive before curtain time for drinks and entertainment by musicians and dancers; and the main auditorium has been impressively converted from a traditional proscenium stage to an in-the-round arrangement, with audiences seated close to a central circular playing space. The preshow experience is not exciting in and of itself, but it has the right idea: The way Cabaret works—or is supposed to work—is by luring us into complicity with the decadence. It seduces us with showbiz, then pulls out a knife. 

Cabaret | Photograph: Courtesy Marc Brenner

After all this promising set-up, though, Frecknall imposes a highly distancing style. This is most evident in Redmayne’s performance. There’s a great deal of room for interpretation in the way his character is handled: Joel Grey’s Emcee, in the original 1966 production and 1972 film, was a human marionette rotting from the inside; Alan Cumming’s was a naughty scenester in deeper political waters than he understood. But Redmayne’s waxy Emcee doesn’t register as a character at all. He’s all maleficent posturing—hunched into a question mark like some medieval demon—and he’s used that way, as a blunt recurring symbol for the rise of the Nazis. (The production has him sing the pastoral Nazi mock-anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” halfway through Act I.) 

The theory seems to be that increasing the Emcee’s power exponentially will make him more exciting: that energy, if you will, is equal to Emcee squared. But it merely makes him less interesting. Costumed by Scutt in a variety of outlandish get-ups—as some kind of demented Katzenjammer Kid, as a skeletal horseman-of-the-apocalypse type, as a clown—he is never not creepy; he should attract us, at least for a while, but he’s repellent all along. 

Cabaret | Photograph: Courtesy Marc Brenner

A similar offputting sameness bedevils Cabaret’s other central character: Sally Bowles, the delusional would-be star vocalist of the Kit Kat Club. The talented Gayle Rankin, who plays her, was excellent as the vicious Fraulein Kost in the show’s 2014 revival, but her punk-rockish bulldozer of a Sally starts so big it has nowhere to go. Sally isn’t meant to be a first-class singer, but she shouldn’t be a fully unpleasant one; it is hard to see what ingratiates her to any club audiences, much less to Cliff (Ato Blankson-Wood), the show’s visiting American writer and narrator, with whom she strikes up an unlikely romance. (In this production, Cliff is gayer than ever before; he’s also Black, which seems odd in the context of his friendship with the Nazi ideologue Ernst, played by Henry Gottfried.)

The last revival of Cabaret famously had Sally play the subtext—furious, self-destructive desperation–at the end of the celebratory title song. This production plays that subtext from beginning to end: It’s got pretty much one note, screamed off-key. Thankfully, it occasionally pauses for breath long enough to accommodate warm, charming performances by two supporting actors: Bebe Neuwirth as Cliff’s practical-minded landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and Steven Skybell as her Jewish beau, the fruit-seller Herr Schultz. They bring heart and small moments of joy to a production that otherwise seems intent to leave you cold. For this you should leave home? Pick up your knitting, your book, your broom, whatever. Life’s too short for this Cabaret

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club. August Wilson Theatre (Broadway). Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Book by Joe Masteroff. Directed by Rebecca Frecknall. With Eddie Redmayne, Gayle Rankin, Bebe Neuwirth, Ato Blankson-Wood, Steven Skybell, Henry Gottfried, Natascia Diaz. Running time: 2hrs 45mins. One intermission. 

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Cabaret | Photograph: Courtesy Marc Brenner


August Wilson Theatre
245 W 52nd St
New York
Cross street:
between Broadway and Eighth Ave
Subway: C, E to 50th St; N, Q, R, 4nd St S, 1, 2, 3, 7 to 42nd St–Times Sq; N, R to 49th St

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