Cabaret review (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

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Plenty of classic artworks about discrimination, persecution and fascism are now being lauded for their “relevance”, given the current local and international political climate, and the rise of a certain Cheetos-stained reality star-cum-politican. Subsequently, “relevance” has become a rather limp and impotent label in recent times.

But John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff’s wonderful 1966 musical Cabaret, set in Berlin during the Nazis Party’s rise to power, feels particularly prescient. It takes place in a wild, open, and sexually liberated community in the dying days of Weimar Berlin, seen through the eyes of a young American writer, Clifford Bradshaw (Jason Kos), who has his own kind of awakening in the city.

Bradshaw is based on English-American novelist Christopher Isherwood, whose semi-autobiographical writings form the basis of the musical.

Most of the characters we meet in Cabaret find it difficult to believe that everything is about to change in their country, shrugging every warning sign off in the naively optimistic belief that things just aren’t going to get that bad. Many are politically engaged but cannot see what’s coming their way. Herr Schultz, the German Jewish character in the piece, constantly says that he knows the German people because he is German, and that he knows things will eventually work out. The fear and oppression can’t last forever, he reasons.

In today’s climate, Cabaret feels like an explicit warning against political apathy. A reminder that nothing good happens when good people turn a blind eye to rising fascism.

The new production to open at the Hayes Theatre never quite has the political or emotional bite that it should, and lacks a consistent vision. It seems like a melding of the various iterations of Cabaret that have been seen around the world since its premiere, picking up clear cues from the choreography of the 1972 film, to certain design cues from Sam Mendes’ 1993 Donmar Warehouse production, but never landing on its own take on the work.

Headlining the production are Paul Capsis as the Emcee and Chelsea Gibb as Sally Bowles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Capsis, a bona fide national treasure, looking quite so lost in a role. He seems almost panicked — screeching and bounding about the stage trying to find his way into this enigmatic character. And that tends to happen a fair bit in this production — when a particular choice refuses to land, everybody lifts the energy to a frantic level in the hope that something meaningful might emerge.

Gibb’s performance as Sally Bowles is technically fine — she sings the role gorgeously and her acting is consistent — but you never get the sense that she’s as unusual and eccentric as Sally is written. This is a woman who has fled England to Berlin because she sees the world fundamentally differently to most of her peers. In 1931, she finds a fleeting moment when her mad eccentricity is accepted and even celebrated.

Meanwhile, celebrated musical theatre actor Debora Krizak is an absolute knockout in a relatively minor role as Fraulein Kost, with all of the scrappy, fearful, desperate energy you’d want to see in Sally.

Many of director Nicholas Christo’s choices are intelligent and strongly inventive, but even more are clumsy or incongruous. It’s a musical which challenges a director to consider how the musical numbers work as part of the narrative, and one which requires a smart and highly stylised approach to really work.

The film version famously put every single musical number into the Kit Kat Klub, as the performers subtly commented on the outside world. The stage version features other songs which do not take place in the Kit Kat Klub, but this production doesn’t quite know what to do with them.

What role does the Emcee play within the performances? Is Clifford an observer and documentarian, or is he part of the frivolity? And when he steps into the musical numbers, is he a naturalistic version of himself, or a heightened, theatricalised one? The inconsistencies mean none of these questions are satisfactorily answered.

One of the great numbers in the second act, sadly cut from the film, What Would You Do? features Fraulein Schneider (Kate Fitzpatrick) defending herself against Sally and Clifford, after calling off her engagement to a Jewish man (a wonderful John O’May as Herr Schultz). Fitzpatrick puts all she has into the number, but halfway through Christo has her turn to the audience, step downstage centre, and sing out. Was he intending to put the “what would you do?” question to the audience? That’s a potentially powerful directorial choice, but it just doesn’t come together here.

Similarly, the title song and 11 o’clock number is misjudged: Gibb manages to find Sally’s revelation in the midst of this song, but it starts off with too heavy a hand to land the emotional punch it might. Gibb already has tears in her eyes by the second line of the song, which leaves her little space to move.

James Browne’s set is particularly evocative with its authentic parquet flooring, but his costumes are over-designed and lack any sense of period (when everything else about this production suggests that it should be authentically 1931 Berlin). The costume are full of strange incongruities — why are Sally’s corsets all so lavish, with not a single sequin out of place, while her stockings look like they’ve been thrown to the wolves?

Kelley Abbey’s choreography is uncharacteristically uninspired — a raunched up version of the film’s movement, paying tribute to Bob Fosse — while Lindsay Partridge’s musical direction keeps proceedings feeling lively, at the very least.

But unfortunately this Cabaret feels like a wasted opportunity. It’s one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre and absolutely perfect for today’s audiences. For that reason alone it never feels like a waste of time, but it should be much better than this.

Cabaret is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until March 5, and then plays at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre from April 27.

Photo by John McRae

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