Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome! Leave your troubles outside and step in to the Kit Kat Klub on the eve of 1930 in Berlin. Here the girls are beautiful … the boys are beautiful … even the orchestra is beautiful! Yes, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Tony Award winning revival of the classic Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret is touring North America, and this new production is dazzling, entertaining and pack a real emotional punch to the gut.
The story of Cabaret takes place in Berlin on the eve of a new decade, and something else just beginning to bubble under the surface. The plot is set in two main locations: the seedy Kit Kat Klub, and a boarding house where an American writer has come to try to start his latest novel. The writer, Cliff (Lee Aaron Rosen), is invited to visit the Kit Kat Klub where he runs into an old “acquaintance” from London, Bob, and meets the clubs star attraction, Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss). While Bob is interested in rekindling something with Cliff, he actually falls for Sally, who then ends up needing a place to stay so she crashes at Cliff’s rented flat, much to landlady Fräulein Schneider’s (Shannon Cochran) chagrin.
In need of money to pay the rent, Cliff is enticed by Ernst Ludwig (Ned Noyes) into making occasional visits to Paris to pick up a package and bring it back to Berlin. Cliff never asks what’s in the packages but as time marches on, it becomes clear that Ernst is working with the Nazi Party, and things in Berlin are going to change very quickly. While not planning a romance with Sally, Cliff suddenly finds himself in love and about to be a father, but with danger approaching, all he wants to do is get back to America with Sally and their baby. But Sally has other plans. There is also a subplot about Fräulein Schneider’s blooming romance with fruit shop owner Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson) that becomes doomed when Ludwig learns Schultz is Jewish.
The lives of the characters are overseen by the Kit Kat Klub’s Emcee (Randy Harrison), who uses song lyrics as social commentary on what is unfolding on the fringes of everyone’s lives. The Emcee, while an actual host at the club, also functions as a guide outside of the club as events unfold in everyone’s lives, making him almost more of a spectre, especially with his garish makeup (that subtly changes throughout the show).
Of course, while the drama is unfolding, the show uses classic tunes like “Wilkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Maybe This Time,” “Money” and “Cabaret” to drive the plot, some as production numbers in the club and some as plot points outside. But even with some of the more upbeat tunes, there is always a very dark undercurrent running throughout the show that ends with a real sucker punch to the gut, almost making you feel very awkward for applauding during the curtain call (but the cast truly deserves it).
At the top of the show, the Emcee talks about how beautiful everyone is inside the Kit Kat Klub, and he’s not kidding. Aside from the performers, you’ve probably never seen a better looking orchestra in any other show, and member of the orchestra (which sits on the upper level of the two-level set) are also incorporated into the show. They both look and sound great. The supporting cast is also top notch, with Cochran and Nelson portraying a particularly touching and tragic romance. Noyes gives Ludwig a particular joviality that turns sour once we realize his true colors, and Rosen’s Cliff is the stalwart guy we just root for to get the girl. Alison Ewing as another renter, Fräulein Kost, is also very entertaining as she tries to hide a parade of sailors in and out of her flat from Fräulein Schneider.
But the show really belongs to Sally and the Emcee. Goss is wonderful as the happy-go-lucky Sally, a Brit transplanted to Berlin (complete with a Louise Brooks bob) who enjoys her stardom at the club. Sally seems to be all carefree on the surface, but Goss always lets us know that there is something darker lurking beneath that veneer, using a lot of misdirection to hide her true feelings from Cliff. She also has some of the show’s key songs (and quite a lovely voice), including one of the angriest renditions of “Cabaret” you’ve ever heard. Goss makes you love Sally in the first act, but some of her self-destructive actions in the second leave you just as hurt as Cliff because you genuinely love her.
The standout of the show, the glue that holds it all together is the Emcee. For years (decades!), that role was owned by Joel Grey (and a very different iteration of the character) and then by Alan Cumming in the 1993, 1998 and 2014 revivals. When the 2014 version of the show took to the road, the role of the Emcee was taken over by Randy Harrison, a veteran of Broadway (Wicked), Off-Broadway and regional theatre. Harrison has also appeared in film and television, but is probably best known for his role on Showtime’s Queer as Folk.
For Cabaret, Harrison fully embraces and inhabits the character, from his playfully, overt sexuality to the more ominous persona that begins to emerge. Harrison can take a playfully silly number like “If You Could See Her” and make it quite horrific just by sneering the final line of the song to make your blood run cold when you realize what the song is truly about. The Emcee also functions as the show’s narrator/storyteller, so he rarely interacts verbally or directly with any of the main characters, just moving props around for them (or even becoming a prop) while continuing his running commentary.
It’s tough to be invisible while being so very visible in the showiest role, but Harrison can steal the spotlight and fade into the background with ease, but one thing is for sure — you can’t take your eyes off of him whenever he’s on stage, even if he’s not really part of the scene but just there waiting for his next moment. And his voice. Harrison’s voice is a magnificent and powerful instrument that just grabs your attention and won’t let go. Grey and Cumming have owned this role for many years, but Randy Harrison just made it his own.
If you’ve only ever seen the movie version of Cabaret, do yourself a favor and catch this production when it comes to your town. It’s much darker than the film, but the staging and cast are excellent, and Harrison and Goss are simply divine and should not be missed. It may not be the “feel good” show of the season, but you’ll know you’ve seen something truly special as you exit the theatre.
Cabaret will be in Baltimore at the Hippodrome Theatre through May 1, then heads to Cincinnati, Dallas, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, Denver, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Charlotte, Tampa, Boston, Toronto, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Seattle, Portland, Washington DC and points in between through the summer of 2017. You can get information or purchase tickets right here through our Ticketmaster affiliate link.
Musical Highlights featuring Andrea Goss and Randy Harrison
CABARET – National Tour Commercial