I’ve always adored Cabaret and I really don’t understand why it has taken so long to come back onto the London stage. With its unforgettable score, including classics such as Wilkommen, Maybe This Time, and the title song Cabaret, and a vivid, contrasting, and unsettling historical setting of 1930s Berlin just before the Nazi stranglehold on the city made its sinister debut, the musical is one of the all time greats. Of course, the spectacle is engrained upon the minds of most musical-lovers in the guise of Liza Minelli’s show-stopping performance of Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film spectacular, but as a theatrical showpiece, it is every bit as enjoyable. Why then isn’t Cabaret a long-running favourite like the composing team (Kander and Ebb)’s other musical great, Chicago? The mind boggles.
The current showing, directed by Rufus Norris, is sadly only set to run until 19 January – so when I heard that the show was making a swift return to London’s Savoy Theatre, I bought tickets as soon as I could get myself onto ticketmaster. The main attraction for many will be the 2001 Pop-Idol winner, Will Young, cast in the role of Emcee. Will Young was born to play this role. He was nothing short of superb in the overtly exaggerated, flamboyant and at times menacing role of the Cabaret’s Master of Ceremonies. Young’s voice, which shot him to fame as the winner of the first major talent contest of the current millennium, was predictably mesmerizing – he didn’t sing a note out of tune. His performance played notable homage to Joel Grey’s famous imagining of the role in the Fosse film version, but also brought the character to life with fresh and abundant energy, with greater versatility in adapting the role of cabaret host into an effective historical narrator of the social changes happening outside of the Cabaret’s doors but whose poisonous potency was leaking more and more into the lives of the Cabaret’s showmen as each day of the Nazi uprising went on.
Indeed, while Will Young was easily the star of the show, the other real success of Norris’ direction was his use of the pre-existing score and story line to import an altogether more menacing historical narrative into the piece. The terror which was trickling and then stampeding onto the once sexually liberal, permissive and hedonistic Berlin streets was tangible throughout the show, and this allowed the audience to partake in the very real tension which pervaded the age, climaxing in a stunningly poignant ending which, while not giving it away for those of you who may still have an opportunity to see the show, hinted at the terrorising fate which lay in store for the “alternatives” of Berlin’s Cabaret underworld once the Nazis took control. It left one both chilled, moved and surprised at the end of a show which, in previous manifestations, had maintained a fairly light-hearted atmosphere throughout. In fact in Fosse’s film, the only tangible reference to the fate of the Cabaret is the presence of a swastika armband subtly reflected in the mirror of the Kit-Kat club as the film’s credits come down. Here, the impending doom of Nazi destruction is far more prevalent. My favourite scene was probably Will Young’s performance of the Hitler Jungen marching song, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, in which Young, latterly affixed with the emblematic moustache of Hitler, controls all the surrounding dancers on huge puppet strings, the handles of his puppetry manifesting into large red swastikas which can only be viewed at the climax of the scene, when Young’s singing moves from a demure politicised aria into the increasingly erratic screams of Hitler’s rally rantings. Meanwhile the puppets’ choreography swings from sexualised movement to the regimented marching of gun-wielding soldiers – a brilliant testimony to the mass manipulation of the Nazi propaganda machine and the social changes which swept through the nation.
For me, the only real disappointment was Eastenders actress Michelle Ryan in the role of Sally Bowles. Minelli’s shoes are big ones to fill, and the role of Sally Bowles must be a daunting prospect for even the most adroit of singer-actresses. And yet such is the complexity of the role – a second-rate show star with an overtly familiar manner hiding a destructive, and at times desperate personality – that it would come as a challenge which most actresses would relish. But in Ryan’s interpretation, that depth and complexity of character was insufficiently prevalent. The eccentricity of the characterisation appeared a little forced and contrived, while the emotional breadth of the role was only scantly explored. Sally’s big ballad, Maybe This Time, lacked the integral desperation of the character who gives the audience this rare glimpse into the true insecurities lying beneath the bravado. Ryan’s performance seemed more concentrated on hitting the high notes – which she failed to do with any confidence. And while her singing was not at all bad, it appeared to be heavily reliant on amplification so that it could carry with anything resembling gusto. I understand that theatres want to attract audiences by casting celebrity stars, but Will Young will have been enough to pull in the crowds here. Sally Bowles is a superb opportunity for a budding actress to make it big, and I think it’s a real shame that this opportunity was not afforded to a deserving young star in the making.
Overall, Norris’ Cabaret is a brilliant reimagination of this piece of classic musical theatre which is given new life and a potent historical re-examination. Its success is however highly dependent on the captivating role played by Will Young, and for that reason is inherently unstable as an ongoing production, with a quickly evaporating shelf-life and a near disaster if Mr Young catches the flu. Let’s hope he keeps on pleasing audiences right through to January 19th.