Ask most musical theater buffs and they'll admit, grudgingly perhaps, that Bob Fosse's film version of the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret was an improvement over the stage version. While the casting of Michael York as Cliff and Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles was in the former case uninspired and in the latter positively perverse, Fosse's dark and dirty vision of pre-war Berlin was compellingly faithful to Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical writings. And by reworking the score so that nearly all of the show's musical numbers took place in the confines of the Kit Kat Club, the movie managed to marry film's naturalism to a musical's artifice almost flawlessly.
Paramount Theater till January 30
So when director Sam Mendes (now best known for his deft direction of American Beauty) decided to revive Cabaret, he had a daunting task: to retake the theatrical power of the original stage production from its more famous cinematic incarnation. His first crack at it in 1993 was only partially successful, but his second version, which swept the Tonys a couple of years back and is now in its touring incarnation at the Paramount, is perhaps the most intelligent, and certainly the most gleefully decadent, retelling yet of Isherwood's parable of corruption and evil.
Cliff (Jay Goede) is a naﶥ American writer who comes to Berlin in 1929 in search of source material. He finds plenty with his German friend Ernst, then in the unexpected company of Sally Bowles (Joely Fisher, forcing Sally's flightiness but with a surprisingly strong voice), whom he meets one night in the cabaret where she performs. Though Cliff is unsure of his own sexual orientation, he and Sally settle into a shabby but comfortable domesticity. Soon enough, however, Cliff is tempted by Ernst to take up smuggling, while Sally is enticed back to the unsavory Kit Kat Club and the malevolent presence of the club's Emcee (Jon Peterson, whose athletic pansexuality, based upon Alan Cummings' Broadway interpretation, will drive memories of Joel Grey right out of your head). Meanwhile, the encroaching grasp of Nazism is seen in the relationship of Cliff's German landlady and Herr Schmidt, a Jewish greengrocer, whose autumnal romance is doomed.
The director's performed some minor textual surgery on the show; the musical's weak number "All the Money I Need" is gone, replaced by the film's better-known "Money," and a couple of other lesser pieces have likewise disappeared. But much more striking is how dark, unhealthy, and sleazy the show's designers (Robert Brill's set and William Ivey Long's costumes) have made the proceedings. The result looks less like a Broadway show and more like the alley behind the theater, and the denizens of the Kit Kat club sport bruises and track marks that make it clear that sex with them would be at best joyless and at worst hazardous to your health.
Mendes is not only interested in how the naﶥ are corrupted, but how the uncaring cynicism of the Weimar wits and the worship of money left a moral vacuum all too easily filled by the Nazis. The sexiness of the show, while explicit, is purposefully excessive (even the orchestra's conductor is a muscled hunk!), and the most tender moments between people, such as Sally's ballad "Maybe This Time" or Herr Schmidt's gentle "Married," are observed and undercut by the cruel irony of the omnipresent Emcee, who wanders unseen through the scenes like the personified stench of perversion. But the rinky-dink "badness" of the cabaret's performers is nothing compared to the pitiless efficiency of the Final Solution. For all his cruelty and violence, all his sinister gender-bending, in the musical's final shocking moment the Emcee's assertion that "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" proves false.