- Keeping in touch: Emcee Jon Peterson (center) lends a hand.
Here is one of the handful of musicals that has discovered the secret of eternal youth. Though this show has been kicking around since 1966, it has been able to reinvent itself to suit the tastes of each succeeding decade. It sprang from Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, a work chronicling the bittersweet friendship of Isherwood's bisexual alter-ego and an amoral extrovert named Sally Bowles. Set in a late '20s/early '30s Berlin, the work was a rueful recollection of eccentric ships that pass in the night.
Next came John van Druten's play I Am a Camera, which transformed one of the tales into an extravagant excuse for Julie Harris's Sally to enthrall '50s audiences as a pathetic, party-hopping waif determined not to let Hitler's emerging thugs spoil her good times. It was Broadway impresario Hal Prince's idea to hire John Kander and Fred Ebb to musicalize Sally's jubilant ride to oblivion. The resulting musical, with a book by Joe Masteroff, resulted in an uneasy blend of two conflicting styles. Its progressive side bedazzled audiences with a decadent musical vaudeville in the tradition of Brecht/Weill's Threepenny Opera. The idea that sent the show soaring into the stratosphere was the interpolation of a master of ceremonies, a showbiz symbol of a Berlin evolving from hedonist playland to Nazi deathtrap. This was Joel Grey's epochal performance.
Cabaret's other side was chained to conventions that ruled Rodgers and Hammerstein. A musical playing next to Hello, Dolly! and Mame was not ready to embrace chaos. As in the film version of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, the hero was turned from a gay observer into a straight-arrow romancer. In the original production, this hero was played by Bert Convy in the manner of singing game-show host. Chorus girls imitating stormtroopers and the impetuous heroine seeking an abortion to continue her practically nonexistent career were enough to curl the matinee ladies' hair, but the romantic subplot was assurance that it wouldn't set off their pacemakers.
Bob Fosse's 1972 film set it in the right direction. Tossing out the cotton candy and leaving in only the dangerous cabaret songs -- including a parcel of new songs written by the original composers -- made for a stylish, superbly edited film that became the last great movie musical of the 20th century. Yet, it had its flaws. It treated the hero's bisexuality as an unpleasant rash that occasionally broke out to spoil his romance with Sally. As the supposedly ungifted heroine, Liza Minnelli belted out her numbers with such professional ferocity that we expected Louis B. Mayer to show up in Berlin to offer her a Hollywood contract.
In 1993, English director Sam Mendes decided to reformat the show as though it were an actual cabaret. He created the atmosphere of a rough-trade leather bar that exists simultaneously in Weimar Berlin and punk London. Painting bruises and heroin needle scars on the chorus girls and boys, and turning the Kit Kat Club into a haven of lascivious zombies who grope anything that moves, regardless of gender, he has morphed the work into a more malevolent Rocky Horror Show.
Along with the original book writer, Mendes has produced an uncompromising rewrite that banishes all the compromises and tired trivialities of the original and has given us an ending that takes us into the very heart of darkness.
On Broadway, Alan Cumming, as the Emcee, and Natasha Richardson, as Sally, imbued their roles with a tawdry brilliance, as if Madonna and Mick Jagger had been processed into theatrical greatness by the Royal Academy of the Arts.
On tour, in a huge theater, the compressed menace and sense of interaction with the actors vanishes. Members of the audience are no longer invited on stage to dance with the Emcee.
As the touring company's Emcee, Jon Peterson has all the right accoutrements, including a swastika on his frequently displayed derriere. He also has boyish menace and sly vocal prowess that can make every sung note a sexual threat or a sexual favor, all to match his rouged nipples. Yet he lacks that extra bit of maniacal witchcraft that made Cumming and Grey before him threatening images that will forever haunt us.
As Sally, Kate Shindle, a former Miss America, is the evening's most pleasant surprise. We don't expect beauty pageant winners to hurl us to theatrical Valhalla. Gawky, raw-boned, and dangerous, she is the personification of Isherwood's endearing loser. She renders the title number as amazon war cry, a rejection of bourgeois values, and a preview of a doomed future. In the old-pro department, Lenora Nemetz as the requisite Nazi whore Fräulein Kost generates vintage star power to warm us from this production's dangerous chill.
Like its sister musical Chicago by the same composers, this darkened Cabaret reflects the cynical mood of the world today, where a show has to try to compete with the musical-comedy aspects of a presidential election.