When Alan Cumming first appears in the current version of Cabaret at the Studio 54 Theatre he is wearing a long black leather trench coat, the kind favored by Gestapo officers during the Nazi era. He takes it off to reveal the familiar suspenders and stylized black pants of the Kit-Kat Club’s Emcee. For the next two and a half hours I was thoroughly mesmerized and entertained, though the man sitting to my left kept dozing off. He was a lot older than me, so I take pity. At least he didn’t snore.
It was a great show, and I thank the lovely Danusia for buying the tickets since I’m unemployed and can’t afford theater tickets. I really wanted to see this show, and more because of Alan Cumming than Michelle Williams.
The Stars of the show
I first noticed Alan Cumming on a BBC TV show in the 90’s called The High Life, a Scottish sitcom about a pair of gay airline stewards. I thought he was very funny and entertaining and he had a lot of charisma. Then he was suddenly in New York doing the role I saw him in last night, and I wanted to see that at the time but I wasn’t a “theater person” yet. Then he went on to do Threepenny Opera and numerous film and television roles. I felt I’d sort of discovered him, but I also discovered Colin Farrell on an early episode of Ballykissangel in the 90’s when he was just 16 years old. Bally-k was also a show on BBC America.
I even inadvertently know where he lives, and one day I was with friends on the corner of Avenue A and 10th Street when he stood right next to me to hail a cab. He was with a couple of friends too, and when I nudged my companions and whispered “there’s Alan Cumming” he turned to look at me, having heard his name. A cab pulled up and he and his friends got in. My friends said, “Who’s Alan Cumming?” Not theater people, I guess.
So it was wonderful to see him up on stage at last. I don’t know what I expected; I guess I was expecting a reproduction of the Bob Fosse movie where Liza Minnelli set the bar high for any aspiring Sally Bowles. That’s not what this production is about.
In the movie the Cliff Bradshaw character is British and Sally Bowles is American, in the stage production it’s flipped. The doomed interfaith couple is Fräulein Schneider and Herr Shultz instead of the young couple Fritz and Natalia.
There is no Maximilian von Huene or outdoor beer garden scene, or a love affair between Brian (the Cliff character) and Max. Cliff’s bi-sexuality is brought out early by connecting him to one of the Kit-Kat Club’s “boys.”
Aside form trying to suss out the differences and making comparisons I laughed and cried at all the right places, so this production worked for me.
There was a lot of criticism in the press about Michelle William’s performance, and I have to say her Mayfair accent was a little annoying. But her singing and dancing were superb. She was the one that brought tears to my eyes, first with her Maybe This Time, and she took Liza’s wonderful rendition of Cabaret and made it her own in her unsure, vulnerable way. When she sang that not only did my eyes tear up but also my breath caught in my throat.
It’s funny that since she’s such a wonderful actress Danusia and I thought she’d be great at the acting part and not so hot on the song and dance, but we were wrong and delightfully surprised. After all, Cabaret is a musical, and that’s what counted the most.
Of course this was Alan Cumming’s show, and when Danusia remarked that the guy playing Cliff (Bill Heck) was no Michael York I said none of the male cast members come close to Alan Cumming, maybe he wanted it that way.
Well, veteran stage actor Danny Burstein comes close as Herr Shultz, he’s a wonderful actor, but that’s a character part.
The women in the production, on the other hand, were outstanding, especially Kristin Olness as Helga (she did this role in the 1998 production as well) and Gayle Rankin as Fräu Kost, both amazing. Linda Emond as Fräulein Schneider was a standout as well.
The wonderful Kristin Olness
The songs and choreography (a big debt to Bob Fosse here) were great, and even the band was beautiful.
This was a very gay production, in the Two Ladies number one of the ladies is a man, and Cumming’s asides and audience interaction are strictly out of the gay handbook. The only over the top moment comes at the end when he takes off his Gestapo coat for the last time (he takes off the coat numerous times during the performance to reveal different very gay costumes) and appears in concentration camp garb, with the pink triangle added below the star of David. We get it, Mr. Cumming.
We left the theater totally satisfied and glad the rain had ended, no need to run to the subway. We walked down to 51st Street to catch the downtown 8th Avenue train, and when we descended the stairs there was an A train waiting. We ran for it along with a bunch of other people, but we needn’t have, the doors remained opened for another minute. Just before the doors closed another wave of people came running down the platform jumping on just in time, and among them was Ms. Rankin, Fräu Kost. She was wearing jeans and flip-flops, and we recognized her right away.
“You were wonderful,” Danusia said to her as she touched Ms. Rankin’s arm. Another couple on the train that had been at the show congratulated her as well.
“Thank you,” she said in her Scottish accent. Now that was a New York moment.