The spotlight at Signature Theater first captures Cabaret‘s Emcee hovering in a doorway, looking vaguely crumpled. The lyrics “Willkommen, bienvenu, welcome” emerge from performer Steven Cupo accompanied by an almost apologetic smile, as if he were anxious to be liked but certain his chalk-white face and black-rimmed lips will discourage all comers. Then he straightens, and with each step toward a charcoal-gray stage some 10 feet away, his manner becomes smoother, more polished. By the time he reaches the footlights, he’s acquired enough sinister snap to fellate a cigar without breaking character. And by the end of the number—which introduces an orchestra in drag and a litter of crotch-stroking ’30s Kit Kat Klub Kittens of indeterminate gender—Eric D. Schaeffer’s staging feels pretty snappy, too.
It stays that way, right through book scenes in which librettist Joe Masteroff introduces a pleasantly nondescript American novelist named Cliff (Mark Sparrow) to some of the characters who had to be cut from the film version so Liza Minnelli could shine without competition as singer Sally Bowles. The staging snap continues through Sally’s first number, “Don’t Tell Momma” (which was not in the film), and through “Mein Herr” (which was written for the film and is here substituted for a novelty song about telephones that no one’s going to miss).
In fact, the staging never flags, but the musical starts to, as breakthrough works are wont to do in the wake of changes they inspire. In 1966, Cabaret was truly a revolutionary Broadway entertainment, startling not just because it sang and danced about Nazi Germany, but because its creators endowed it with a split personality so their ghoulish Emcee could seem to comment acidly on a society going haywire. If some of that acid spilled on ’60s concerns about racism and burgeoning militarism in the Far East, so much the better. Bob Fosse’s screen adaptation made this quasi-Brechtian commentary so effortlessly integral that the Emcee device has since become something of a Broadway cliché, employed to allow cynical Che Guevaras and “half-breed” Viet Engineers to toughen up otherwise sentimental stories. Cabaret was the model, and since most audience members know it only through its streamlined film incarnation, it’s generally remembered as being just as smooth and integrated as its successors.
A 1987 revival starring Joel Grey that played a pre-Broadway engagement at the Kennedy Center gave the lie to that notion, even though it had been somewhat reworked by its creators. Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb had allowed minor changes—two of the original songs were deleted, two new songs added, and the film’s music and lyrics found their way into a few scenes—while references to Cliff’s bisexuality were made more explicit. The impact of these changes seemed cosmetic at the time.
Now the authors have given Signature Theater permission to alter that version even more, by interpolating two complete songs from the movie. Schaeffer also takes some liberties with staging, revising the focus of several numbers (the Emcee’s cabaret turn, “Two Ladies,” in this version surreptitiously features two gentlemen) and encouraging choreographer Karma Camp to pay homage to well- remembered moments in the film version.
The result is generally effective, but sometimes not. The show was always two musicals: a leering swastikabaret wrapped around an Oklahoma!-style romance. Now, it’s three—the leer, the romance, and the movie—with each ending up a trifle diluted. Edges get blurred as ideas that work well in one spot are doubled and tripled in others. If, for instance, there’s a guy in drag among the Kit Kat Klub Kittens and an orchestra in drag situated among girders that designer Lou Stancari has crafted to look like the underside of some monstrous industrial bridge, then how much ironic hay can really be made by putting the Emcee in drag at the opening of the second act?
Fortunately, on the strength of abundant theatricality, the production can muscle its way past most objections that purists might raise. It’s also blessed with a capable cast, and genuine star power where it counts most. Ever since Minnelli’s presence turned the movie into the tale of a spectacularly underrated cabaret performer (the plot hinges on Sally’s not being talented, but that doesn’t make for good star turns), all subsequent Sallys have had to play the self-destructive chanteuse to the rafters…and beyond. Megan Lawrence, best known to Signature audiences as Into the Woods‘ cute, bloodthirsty Little Red Ridinghood, plays the character as a brassy, full-voiced vamp with insecurity to spare. She has a slinky, insinuating knack for charming her way into everyone’s confidence even as she seems to be backing away from them. Her big numbers are all knockouts—including the movie’s “Mein Herr,” which she must simultaneously kick and belt without benefit of multiple takes to make breathing possible.
Equally effective is Cupo’s Emcee, who becomes oilier and more ominous as the evening progresses. By the second act, he seems to be doing his own private dance of destruction on every entrance. Providing able support are Patricia Pearce as a landlady who barely figured in the movie but who was one of the stage show’s biggest stars, originally played on Broadway by the great Lotte Lenya. Kander and Ebb wrote all the character’s songs in the style of Lenya’s late husband, Kurt Weill, and Pearce’s interpretations of them make a production of Happy End or The Threepenny Opera using local performers seem plausible. As her shy Jewish suitor, Lawrence Redmond is playing too near the top of his range vocally, but is affecting during book scenes. Steve Lebens as an unctuous Nazi and Kathryn Sylvia D’Aelio as a calculating prostitute are also fine. And once he stops playing innocent rubedom as if he were auditioning for a bus-and-truck company of 42nd Street, Sparrow is sharp and effective as the novelist. He has a fine voice, but should smile less. Much less. The rest of the cast is disciplined, particularly when executing Camp’s spirited, often raunchy choreography.
Technical elements are everything Signature’s budget will allow, with Susan Anderson’s decadent costumes, Stancari’s multidoored, unremittingly grim setting, and Jon Kalbfleisch’s spirited musical direction qualifying as standouts. John Burchett’s alternately atmospheric and show-bizzy lighting falls oddly short on a couple of isolated occasions—something different needs to happen as Sally is about to launch into the title song, for instance. But for the most part, the bilious shades in which he bathes the performers and the ominous reds he uses to signal the rise of Nazism before Schaeffer reveals swastikas on helmets, armbands, and banners are precisely right.
Expanding on a tradition at Signature, Schaeffer doesn’t entirely confine the theatrics to the auditorium. The walls of the long hallway leading from the lobby to the theater are nearly bare when ticket-takers first greet the audience. But by intermission, swastikas have appeared on metal girders, reminding the audience that Cabaret has begun in an era when Nazism was not at all a fait accompli. And after the curtain call, the crowd emerges into a space festooned with banners and portraits of Hitler as the sound of jackbooted stormtroopers seeps through the walls. The effect is double-edged—a tribute both to the continuing resonance of Cabaret‘s social commentary, which instantly seems to apply to the contemporary political world you’re re-entering, and to the expert artifice being practiced by Signature Theater. If you touch the solid “metal” girders as you pass—identical twins of the ones holding up the roof of the room you just left—you’ll find they’re made of styrofoam.