Book by Joe Masteroff; music by John Kander; lyrics by Fredd Ebb; based on John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera
Bill Kenwright Ltd
Leeds Grand Theatre
Sexy, menacing and downright perverse, Cabaret is not your standard musical. Things may have moved on since Kander and Ebb’s show debuted on Broadway in 1966—we’ve had cannibalism in Sweeney Todd, puppet sex in Avenue Q and just about everything in The Book of Mormon—but this musical nevertheless retains a frisson of danger.
Adapted from John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera—which, in turn, was inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin—Cabaret portrays the rise of Nazism at the beginning of the 1930s whilst focusing on the nightlife of the seedy Kit Kat Club in Germany’s capital.
The two main plots both concern doomed romances. The first revolves around bisexual American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Charles Hagerty) and his relationship with English cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Kara Lily Hayworth). The second concerns an elderly boarding-house owner, Fraülein Schneider (Anita Harris), and a gentle Jewish fruit vendor, Herr Schultz (James Paterson).
Towering over proceedings is the ghoulish Emcee (John Partridge), who personifies the decadence of the Weimar Republic.
This was my first experience of watching Cabaret on stage. Prior to this I had only seen Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. I enjoyed Rufus Norris’s production very much, but this is one of the rare occasions where I feel the film adaptation has the edge over the original stage show. Clearly Fosse had a great instinct for what should be kept or discarded.
Take Kander and Ebb’s score, for example. All the songs that feature in the film—such as “Wilkommen” and “Mein Herr”—are superb. In stark contrast, all the songs that don’t feature in the film—such as “So What?” and “It Couldn’t Please Me More”—are forgettable at best.
Fosse also recognised that the relationship between Cliff and Sally is far more interesting than the one between Fraülein Schneider and Herr Schultz, hence the decision to drop the latter. That being said, I thought Anita Harris and James Paterson both gave lovely performances and sang beautifully.
Like the film, it is during the musical performances at the Kit Kat Club that the show really springs into life. Kinkily dressed—stockings and suspenders for the women and leather hot pants for the men—the dance ensemble does a fantastic job with Javier De Frutos’ jagged, sexy-ugly choreography.
Fosse made Sally Bowles the main character of his film, but in the stage show she is part of an ensemble dominated by the Emcee. No matter, Kara Lily Hayworth does a fine job of conveying the character’s brittle sense of identity. She also sings splendidly, particularly during her barnstorming rendition of “Maybe This Time”.
As Cliff, Charles Hargerty makes a good fist of a rather bland character. Basienka Blake provides strong support as an unrepentant prostitute and Nick Tizzard is suitably sinister as a card-carrying Nazi.
As expected, the show is dominated by John Partridge’s outrageous turn as the Emcee. Dressed like a demonic schoolboy, he combines the doll-like inhumanity of Joel Grey with the raw sexuality of Alan Cumming.
Despite my partiality for the film, there are moments in Norris’s production that I will struggle to forget. The image of Partridge as a demented puppet master is seared into my brain, as is the final scene in which the evils of the Nazi regime are shockingly rendered.
Reviewer: James Ballands