Cabaret

Cabaret

06/11/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

I think I know Cabaret because I’ve seen the movie. I love the movie. But tonight, at the Festival Theatre, I quickly learn that the stage version is very different. At first I’m disappointed. One of the things I like most about the movie is that it’s a musical where the songs are all supposed to be songs, performed in a club or at a rally. Here, characters sing instead of speaking, break into song to declare their love. In short, it’s a more traditional musical. And, as it goes on, I come to appreciate it.

Cabaret the movie is very much Sally Bowles’ story – and, of course, it’s Liza Minelli’s film. Here, Sally (Kara Lily Hayworth) has to share the limelight with two other leads: Emcee (John Partridge) and Fräulein Schneider (Anita Harris). It’s New Year’s Eve, a breath away from 1931; we’re in Berlin – and American wannabe novelist, Cliff (Charles Hagerty), is seeking inspiration.  At the train station, he meets the charming, erudite Ernst Ludwig (Nick Tizzard), who recommends Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house, and arranges to meet him at the bawdy Kit Kat Club, where English Sally is a dancer. It’s an intoxicating, hedonistic place,  but – even within these walls – the creeping march of Nazism cannot be avoided forever…

The choreography (by Javier de Frutos) is stunning: sexy, vibrant, funny and spectacular. Indeed, in the first act, the big number club scenes almost eclipse the story. Standout routines include the lewdly hilarious Two Ladies and the unsettling Tomorrow Belongs to Me. The orchestra are integrated with the action, on an upper tier, visible when we’re in the Kit Kat Club, but otherwise behind a screen. This works well, implying that they’re employees of the club.

The relationship between Sally and Cliff seems a bit muted, which makes sense, I suppose, as – in this version – she’s only staying with him because she’s lost her job and has nowhere else to go. Of course, he’s gay and she’s not one for commitment, so it was never going to be a forever thing, but I would like to see a bit more spark. Otherwise, Hayworth makes a lovely Sally – all wit and vivacity, with a beautiful singing voice – and Hagerty does a decent job as Cliff.

The storyline between the elderly Fräulein Schneider and her beau, Herr Schulz (James Paterson), is particularly emotive, their tentative steps towards romance thwarted by anti-Semitism. Harris and Paterson are nicely understated in these roles: they show the fortitude of those who’ve learned not to expect much; they’ve already survived one war and lived through hyper-inflation. Their pragmatism is heartbreaking, and provides an interesting counterpoint to both Cliff’s naïve idealism and Sally’s determined ignorance.

The second act is more compelling than the first: by now, we care about the characters, and the Nazi undercurrent is getting stronger. Partridge’s Emcee is getting visibly more edgy, his playfulness takes on a desperate tone. And we watch, horrified, as it all unravels, waiting for the inevitable horror we know must come.

The final scene is awful in the truest sense; it’s a powerful set piece, exemplifying Rufus Norris’ directing prowess. I won’t describe it here, because I think its impact relies on some element of surprise; suffice to say, the applause is accompanied by a sense of unease, the usual whoops and cheers that follow a rumbustious musical take a little while to erupt. And it takes a craftsman to achieve that.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

 

Cabaret

02/06/19

Whenever I’m asked to name my favourite musical, Cabaret is always right up there at the top of the pile. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love lighter stuff like Singing in the Rain and Calamity Jane, but there’s something about this film that transcends the limitations of the genre. While it boasts a whole bunch of solid gold songs, courtesy of Kander and Ebb, the film deals with much weightier issues than your average singalong. Set in Berlin in the early thirties, it documents the decadent nightclub entertainment of the era, set against the rising prominence of Hitler and the Nazi party. I’ve seen it a few times since its UK release in 1972, but only on small screens – this Vintage Sunday screening at The Cameo Cinema gives me the opportunity to properly reasses it. I’m happy to say it hasn’t aged one bit – indeed, given recent political developments, it feels eerily prescient.

Brian Roberts (Michael York) arrives in Berlin where he intends to write fiction, whilst financing himself by giving English lessons. He books in at a once-genteel boarding house and finds himself rooming nextdoor to entertainer, Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), currently wowing audiences at the seedy Kit Kat Club, presided over by the creepy and salacious MC (Joel Grey). Brian and Sally become close friends and, as time goes on, lovers – but their relationship is developed through turbulent and changing times. The Nazi party members who hand out leaflets at the club are at first derided and openly laughed at by the customers but, gradually, they come to prominence until they are calling the shots – a situation perfectly captured in the scene at a biergarten, where an angelic-faced member of the Hitler youth croons a stirring rendition of Tomorrow Belongs to Me and the bar’s customers, one by one, begin to sing along with him.

There’s so much to enjoy here it’s hard to know quite where to begin. First of all, there’s Minnelli, positively incandescent, the sheer talent seeming to blaze off her as she sings and dances with absolute authority. Joel Grey too is deliciously dissolute, clearly relishing the role he was born to play. But it’s director/choreographer Bob Fosse who is the real revelation, his mercurial visual style unleashing a whole blitzkrieg of unforgettable scenes. As in all the best musicals, the songs comment on and add to the action and Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is forever cutting away to Grey’s leering, winking countenance as he slips us a knowing smile. ‘Look what’s happening here,’ he seems to be saying. ‘And you’re doing nothing to stop it.’

The tragedy, of course, is that none of the major players here ever achieved anything of comparable excellence in their lifetimes. Minnelli’s subsequent screen career is distinctly underwhelming, Grey’s likewise and Bob Fosse directed only another three features before his untimely death in 1987. But Cabaret stands as a dazzling example of the screen musical, a film that never mocks the flamboyant characters it depicts, never goes for the cheap shot and, most important of all, never shies away from asking profoundly unsettling questions.

If you get the opportunity to see it on the big screen, grab it; if not, see it anyway, in whatever way you can. Few films have such an immense reputation and even fewer actually deserve the acclaim they receive.

Cabaret is, quite simply, a musical masterpiece.

5 stars

Philip Caveney