With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
Slender men wearing black pants, suspenders and no shirt served Heineken and bottled water in commemorative Cabaret glasses. Each mezz seat had its own table with an arm with deeply indented circles for drinks, a small red lamp and a business card from the Kit Kat Klub.
Below was where the real action was. The orchestra section had been divided into intimate tables for two sprinkled around so cabaret men and women could serve drinks and light appetizers before the show. As the servers sashayed around, girls on the tiny stage came out to stretch and tantalize, flirting with arriving guests. Men hung out on each side holding a trumpet or a saxophone, leering at the crowd or merely looking sullen. The stage was smaller than usual, taken up by the wrought-iron spiral staircase on both sides and walkway connecting them.
“Is he here?”
We had enjoyed the relative quiet on our level, watching the scene below, some more people filling in the seats. That was gone now.
A tall woman in her early 50’s leaned into me and whispered again.
“Is he here?”
“I don’t know. There’s usually a note in the Playbills but since we didn’t get those I-“
“You didn’t get one either? What’s up with that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, he better be here. That’s why I’m here.”
And then the rest of her party came. Her husband, let’s say, and another couple. They had their drinks from the bar and were hunkered down for the evening. A litany of nonsense spewed from the other female in their party, followed by a second warning from the usher telling them that pictures were only permitted during intermission. They nodded and as soon as he was away… click click click.
With no Playbill to occupy our minds, for example look and see how many of the actors had appeared in an episode of Law and Order, people had to fill the time another way. I talked with my bride about Alan Cumming. I told her I first saw him in person at a diner on Houston Street in 2008. He was being interviewed for morning television to promote his role in the recent revival of The Seagull off-off Broadway. I already had my tickets (I say tickets because back then I always bought two tickets in the off-chance I’d find someone to go with me. I rarely did.) so it was delightful to see him this way. He had a heavy beard but I had recognized him immediately. The man from Circle of Friends (neighborhood weasel), Eyes Wide Shut (creepy hotel clerk) and The Anniversary Party (delightful little improv he co-wrote with his friend Jennifer Jason Leigh, who saw on Broadway in Proof, right after Mary Louise Parker left the Tony award-winning role). Cumming had also memorably appeared on IFC’s Dinner at Five series with Jon Favreau. I told her in that episode Cumming said he was launching a new cologne line called Cumming so that people would have to ask for it by name unable to avoid the eventual nervousness and double-entendres that were bound to follow. Cheeky.
He was also an accomplished writer, having written a simply marvelous fiction called Tommy’s Tale. I had picked up a copy at HousingWorks in Soho, a coalition designed to help NYC’s homeless population since Giuliani ran them back into the shadows. He has since written an autobiography I have yet to read.
His Trigorin was the most sexual and playful I had seen than in any other version of The Seagull. I’m not sure if that was what Chekhov intended but it certainly brought buoyancy to the serious drama. Though I needed no reassurance he would put on a good performance I was happy to have seen his take.
By this time, my bride was itching for the musical to begin or at least for her husband to stop talking about Alan Cumming. We looked around; just about every seat was filled. Suddenly the lights above dimmed and the little red lamps glowed.
All eyes went to the stage. A rectangular sliver opened up on the door. Watchful, mascaraed eyes peered out. The audience responded. It was him.
The second he proudly strutted out in his trench coat it was all over. He owned that stage. Cumming playing the role of Master of Ceremonies entertained us. It is a tour-de-force as any that I’ve seen on stage. Every second he just went for it. You can see why he has been reviving this role for almost 20 years. He loves to play EMCEE. He relishes the power, the sex, and the electricity. Every night he gets to take complete control. Though there are set musical numbers he has ample opportunity to play with audience, basking in the freedom of being someone else. The irony being that is exactly who the EMCEE is as well. Pretending to be someone else.
He is our delightful narrator, slinking in between scenes, hanging by the window, foot dangling, always around, but only as intrusive as you’d like. Outside of his cabaret numbers he doesn’t have any lines, and is not involved in the narrative in any way. And yet he’s always around, silently setting or manipulating a scene. He invites you into a place where “you leave your troubles outside”. And throughout the story, the Kit Kat Klub is the only place that is trouble-free, as the city and the world around it is changing.
Back in the Klub he’s a torch song singer in a slinky dress, he’s an interloper in the line of can-can dancers, and he’s the agent provocateur feeling up and down men and women.
And what men and women! After introducing several dancers during the opening number “Willkommen” the upper half of the stage curtain comes down revealing a full cabaret orchestra. When the dancers aren’t dancing, they are singing, when they aren’t singing, they’re acting, and when they’re not acting they’re playing the instruments. And sometimes doing all at once. The cast of Cabaret is immensely talented. And it makes for a wild free-for-all. The sexy lithe dancer stretching out in the beginning of the show is the same one doing the dancing and singing number and later on rolls out a kick-ass saxophone solo.
The talents do not stop with members of the Kit Kat Klub. It’s a hard act to follow when the audience, though interested in the rest of the story can’t wait to get back to the Klub. You need veteran actors to maintain interest and Danny Burstein and Linda Emond as the older couple divided by ethnicity give the musical its true heart and soul. Acting aside, these two have serious musical chops and it appears to come effortless to them. This production is a class act all the way.
I have to comment on the singing and the songs. I only knew “Willkommen” and “Cabaret” coming into the theater tonight. My wife vaguely knew those as well. The rest of the songs were rousing, saucy, bouncy, heartbreaking and show-stopping. Even a couple days afterwards and we are humming the songs throughout the apartment.
One of the problems I have with musicals is stopping decent drama to break into song. You are following a story and suddenly the actor makes their way center stage and you feel a song coming on. I enjoy soundtracks from musicals because the music and lyrics are crafted well. Musicals like Oklahoma, The King and I, West Side Story, My Fair Lady particularly stand out. Taken out of context, most of the songs still have me humming years later.
Cabaret may very well find its place in the above company, for me. Seeing the actors belt out these songs while doing complicated choreography has its own contradictions. The song is supposed to exemplify the drama scene set up and entertain but often it comes out strained and out of breath and the emotional punch of a brilliant composition misses its mark.
I told you the cast was immensely talented and they delivered a remarkable coup, combining singing and dancing without looking like they were performing dance routines or sing difficult full-bodied songs. Sure, both Cumming and Ms. Stone had a couple moments where their voice momentarily left them, but they were during scenes at the Kit Kat Klub and I rationalized the rawness in their throat as acting out the workaday life of a true cabaret performer.
Sally Bowles is the featured singer at the Klub and has gone from man to man whoring herself for whoever will pay her bills and show her a good time. Then she meets this American and thinks possibly she may change. However, she cannot change her destiny and ends up being a tragic character. Sally is emblematic of 1930’s Berlin, a train barreling through to its inevitable destination.
Sally first appears in the opening song and then races through two songs in a row, one being the popular “Don’t Tell Mama” so popular its namesake is a real piano bar/cabaret in Manhattan. The other being the more sexual “Mein Herr”. Before she has even met her American love interest we have to fall in love with her.
Enter Emma Stone. With her little girl voice and naughty moves deliciously tapping into the allure of the desirable coquette in “Don’t Tell Mama” she immediately turns the mood from playful to heavy breathing eroticism, dragging her voice down for “Mein Herr” in husky and wanton fashion. In these two songs, Emma Stone, our wide-eyed, red-headed gamine has our attention. Like Cumming, she has drawn us in early making the devious twist at the end more devastating.
It’s a balancing act playing Sally Bowles. The bright cheery life of the party when she’s on stage at the Klub and pretending like her stage persona is who she really is. In short, living as if life is truly a cabaret. Emma Stone plays Sally as if she is a few steps close to breaking, hanging on the precipice by phantom integrity. When she’s not singing about a “perfectly marvelous” man, in love with the performance of being in love, she’s as distant as the soul of her stolen childhood. She’s false bravado and terrified little girl. Upon making a fateful decision late in the story, Ms. Stone’s Sally isn’t malicious or cruel but trapped, trapped with the knowledge that the only place where life is a cabaret is at the cabaret. The real world is too real, with deep complex emotions like love. Sally prefers the land of make believe, even if it is short-lived.
The show-stopping tune “Cabaret” is all Sally. It’s the way she’ll pour her guts out. Emma Stone goes for broke in that number and comes up aces. She embodies “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr” in one song, starting out playful and entertaining leading to a raw, volcanic, microphone-strangling finale. It’s the only place she will ever belong.
Mistake after mistake, selfish and superficial decision after another, Sally Bowles does nothing to earn our sympathy, let alone respect, yet Emma Stone makes us want to care for her.
Tenderness around the rough edges, this is what we feel for our doomed characters. Innocent games have been played but the light of day always shows consequences.
When the curtain fell the audience rose. We got up during the re-entrance of Danny Burstein and Linda Emond and by the time Emma Stone followed by Alan Cumming showed, the whole theater was on their feet. Wild rapturous applause for a sensational performance.
As we exited, we were presented with fresh Playbills, and before we hit the street, most people were furiously scanning the booklet, gratified at last. We retrieved the car and just before turning onto West 53rd, saw the crowd of fans waving their Playbills by the stage door. We were home thirty minutes later.
The musical will finally close again March 29 and no doubt this will be the last time Alan Cumming wears the black suspenders and sports the swastika on his ass. I wonder what he is thinking having turned an iconic role originated by another actor into a completely different variation iconic in its own right. How it feels to seductively whisper “Auf Wiedersehen” one last time, leading his audience with a beckoning finger.
And for Emma Stone, the 26 year-old newly minted Academy Award nominee with her career just beginning, where will this experience eventually rate in her life? Something terrifying and brilliant that maybe if she had given it a second thought may never have done.
I could understand that. After all, were it not for one anxious evening coupled with an impulsive act, we would never would have had the opportunity to take this journey; magical and unforgettable.
Even for a musical.