Once in a while, a show catches you off guard, it surprises you, and delights you. This is such a show. Sumptuously staged, it veers from burlesque, to grotesque, from bright lights, to dark alleyways.
“Cabaret” is synonymous with the 1972 film in which Liza Minelli achieved worldwide superstardom with her portrayal of nightclub turn, Sally Bowles. Its origins are the eponymous musical, first performed in1966, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and the book by Joe Masteroff. In turn the book is based upon John Van Druten’s 1951 play “I Am Camera”, which was adapted from the short novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood. Subsequent productions have seen changes to the song and character roster.
This is a new Bill Kenwright production, a man who understands theatre better than most. As the United Kingdom plunges into uncertainty and a prorogued Parliament, pre Brexit, so Kenwright takes us to 1931 Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power, and the notorious Kit Kat Klub, played out on a brooding monochrome set, with only stage lights to colour it. It captures the zeitgeist of our times.
Rising star Kara Lily Hayworth , who excelled in the stage production of Cilla ( also a Bill Kenwright show), takes the part of Sally Bowles. Veteran actress Anita Harris plays German boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider as she embarks on a doomed relationship with Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor, sensitively portrayed by James Patterson, who knows that a bit of fruit is the way to a woman’s heart.
At curtain up it is John Partridge, with the fabulous part of MC, who welcomes and draws us, and Sally Bowles, into his twilight world of darkness and depravity, leering through a camera lens, observer, commentator, and voyeur. A welcome nod to its “I Am A Camera” origins.
This is the strongest cast of principals I have seen in a long time. Partridge, taunts, cajoles and narrates, sinister and compelling. Physically imposing, he gives the air of a man that can make you do as he says if you don’t do what he says when he asks nicely. Anita Harris and James Patterson are wonderful playing out the vital narrative thread of a love affair doomed by the far right. Harris sings beautifully, with a rasping, careworn tone to her vocal. Schultz’s fundamental decency, and his inability to understand the nature of the impending Nazi threat , laden with pathos, impresses enormously.
The production seduces initially with catchy piano, and on -stage house band, until the temperature rises, and the lights go down, leaving us trapped in the cellar club.
Kara Lily Hayworth excels as the naïve, wide eyed ingenue at the start, whose perspective shifts as the story unfolds, culminating in an emotional, plangent, rendition of the title song at the end. Her lover Cliff, played by Charles Hagerty, provides an anchor performance opposite the exotic colour of both her, and MC, as he struggles with his own sexuality in an uncertain world. The strong ensemble revel in well written characters, and a compelling story.
The movement throughout the show is a joy and testament to the skilful hand of choreographer Javier De Frutos. Bare male torso’s and stocking clad showgirls abound, a flash of breasts and male nudity teases and tantalises. Two set piece scenes stand out, firstly with the MC as part chariot driver, part puppet master, his minions on reins.
Secondly a stunning fight scene in which Hagerty is beaten up by the Nazis, part street mugging, part sadomasochistic extravaganza.
Unlike most musicals, the end is downbeat, but powerful. Hayworth delivers “Cabaret” not as a show stopping, barnstorming finale, as in the film. Instead it is reflective, resigned and rueful. An ironic delivery, restrained, under sung, but all the more powerful for it. Just previously , Partridge had sung “If You Could See Her”, poignant, and with outstanding tone. Indeed throughout, the lyrics, by Fred Ebb stand out as intelligent and clever, a cut above almost all of his peers.
A perky, vibrant, chorus line, superbly costumed, engage and strut with vim and verve. This is an excellent revival, capturing the frenetic fragility of our times, luring us into hedonistic escape before we pay, and runs until Saturday 5th ,then continues on nationwide tour into 2020. Wolverhampton is only the second stop on the tour, so there is plenty of opportunity to catch it either in Wolverhampton, or around the country. Do not miss this. In the words of Sally Bowles:
“What good is sitting, alone in the room?
Come, hear the music play
Life is a cabaret, old chum
Come to the cabaret!”