(I am getting back to the blog. It’s been slow, more so than I wanted thanks to an upper respiratory bug that has kicked my butt for more than a week. The how-to series will continue next week.)
We currently live in an age where the so-called creative types in Hollywood, New York and London seem to be at an end of original ideas. Instead of new movies, TV shows or plays, we get retreads and “new treatments” of old favorites. Some work but, more often than not, these re-dos fall flat on their faces. Look up movies like “Land of the Lost” with Will Ferrell for an example of one that fell even more than flat.
Soon, the History Channel will redo “Roots“, the pre-eminent mini-series of the last century. I’m old enough that I can remember sitting in the living room with my parents watching the 8-night event. This new imagining of it will probably be good — at least it has a cast of actors who can, well, act. But I am worried about how it will be changed to fit the political and social commentary of today.
And that brings me to the reason for this post. Last night, I went to see Cabaret in Dallas. The Cabaret making the theater touring rounds today is not the Cabaret of then 1970’s or even of the 1990’s. Oh, much of the same music is there. It is still set in pre-war Berlin. The characters are the same, at least in name. But the differences. Oh, the differences.
I knew there would be changes. Those changes were what made the revival of Cabaret such a talked about show back in the ’90’s. The Emcee, the character immortalized by Joel Grey in the original staging and in the movie, was portrayed in the revival by Alan Cummings. Gone was the evil, asexual character, replaced by a character that was anything but asexual. More than that, the evil exuded in the original characterization was replaced by debauchery. For the first time, Cliff’s bisexuality was made clear as well. Different takes for a different generation.
Fast forward to last night. I went into the night wondering if I would like the show. I’m a follower of the adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Sure, you can improve something — and you should. But redoing something just for shock value isn’t my cup of tea. Still, curiosity had me going in and hoping I would enjoy the performance.
And I did, but with reservations.
Overall, it was a very good performance both vocally and when it comes to acting. But it felt like a watered down version of the musical. Gone was the haunting performance of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” The performance last night lost so much by being performed by one of the “working girls” instead of by the Aryan youth. As noted earlier, the evil that was the Emcee was missing and, with it, the sense of impending doom. Gone, too, was the 19 year old Cliff with his innocence. Instead, the male lead was older, wearier and more worldly. Worse, in my eye at least, Sally was broken from the beginning. There was no hope for her or in her and you knew it.
The result was a show where you knew from the onset that no one would get out unscathed. Worse, you knew the characters knew it as well.
But the major problem with this version of the musical is that despite some inventive and very effective staging, the heart was removed. By scaling back so much of the dialog and removing some of the songs, a lot of context is now missing. For those who aren’t familiar with the story and the time it’s set in, much of it would not make sense. I have to wonder if that is part of the reason the performance was one of the worst attended I’ve been at in recent years.
One thing the change in the Emcee’s character accomplished was the shock factor. Not in his sexuality. Not in his over the top performance. No, the impact moment came not when Sally returns to the Kit Kat Klub and sings “Cabaret”. That impact moment came just before the final curtain fell when the Emcee removes his leather coat so reminiscent of Gestapo coats to reveal the striped “pajamas” of someone sent to one of the death camps. Affixed on his top was the yellow badge marking him as Jewish and the pink triangle marking him as a homosexual. The ending moment was a flash of light, a jerk of his body and then he stood there broken and dead and no one in the audience could doubt what it meant.
But that came almost as an afterthought. The whole impending doom of the growth of Nazi power in Berlin felt missing. The town was a character but its history had been diminished somehow.
Still, I find myself recommending the musical. The performances ranged from good to inspired. The vocals were excellent, even if the mikes needed to be adjusted a couple of time. But, if you go, don’t expect the Cabaret of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. If you aren’t familiar with the history of 1930’s Berlin, especially the time around Kristallnacht, grab at least the highlights. It will help you understand the backdrop of the play.