Book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb
Ambassador Theatre Group Productions and Underbelly
For this latest revival of this musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s stories and John van Druten’s play, the producers set out to offer not just a show but an experience. They have reconfigured the theatre and the Playhouse has become the Kit Kat nightclub in which so much of the play’s action is set.
I’ve always imagined this dive in decadent 1920s Berlin as being rather seedy, but, whatever the goings-on inside it, this club is an elegant venue, glitzy and expensive (just check out the seat prices) and provides good sight-lines and extras.
Entrance for most of the audience is by the Stage Door down into the basement where, from an hour before the show starts you will be offered a free drink and can catch a prologue performance of music and dancing before passing through various bars and up to the theatre where the auditorium has been totally transformed with partial seating at cabaret tables and the audience on all sides of a circular stage set below the old proscenium.
The press of people and the bead curtain between performers and public discouraged me from watching the prologue show, but there was more interaction when I got into the theatre which continued and when the play proper started players making entrances down the aisles, sometimes crawling at floor level.
It kicks off well with Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee in the spotlight twisting his limbs in a performance that becomes very physical, though his use of a very heavy accent doesn’t help clarity—though we probably all know the lyrics anyway. It is a remarkable performance but, except perhaps in “If You Could See Her,” the song with a female gorilla about antisemitism, he seems largely trapped in the spotlight.
The Kit Kat girls (most of them boys) are a riot but a beautifully disciplined riot with their gyrations and high kicks. When Jessie Buckley’s Sally Bowles is introduced, perched up on the edge of the dress circle, she’s captivating and, in her first number gives it that slightly off edge that matches Sally’s professional level, though cheating to deliver most of her songs delightfully and rising to the challenge when things overpower her.
Omari Douglas as American writer Clifford Bradshaw, the show’s version of the Isherwood persona, is gentle and charming but a bit lost in the hedonistic world he has found himself in, which is perhaps at it should be, but the relationship between Sally and Cliff lacks dynamic and is swamped by the energy with which the Kit Kat chorus dominates things.
Cutting completely through that is the sheer humanity of the subsidiary story of their landlady Fraulein Schneider and her lodger Herr Schultz. They are beautifully performed by Liza Sadovy and Elliot Levey and the reality of their situation is emphasised by being seen against the extravagance of the Kit Kat Club scenes.
This is a Cabaret that wants to give its audience a good time and the satirical edge of some of the songs doesn’t always cut through the layer of fun in which they are wrapped up. The sheer beauty of “Tomorrow Belongs to Us”, which became a Nazi anthem, is effectively chilling. The spectre of fascism still hovers, but this is more a lively night out than a political lesson—but it isn’t trying to be. The Kit Kat dancers are amazing; they sparkle and make up for what’s missing.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton