Cabaret returned to the West End last night (10 October 2006, previews from 22 September) at Shaftesbury Avenue’s Lyric Theatre, where Anna Maxwell Martin (His Dark Materials, The Coast of Utopia, Three Sisters) made her musical debut playing sultry Kit Kat Klub singer Sally Bowles in the production, directed by Rufus Norris (Festen, Market Boy), also making his musical debut.
Cabaret turns Weimar Berlin into a dark and sexually charged haven of decadence, its morally ambiguous inhabitants determined to keep up appearances as the real world - outside the sanctuary of the cabaret - prepares for the chaos of war. Based on the stories of Christopher Isherwood and the play by John Van Druten, it has a book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. Cabaret premiered on Broadway on 1966 and in 1972 was made into an Oscar-winning film starring Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles.
If overnight critics weren’t completely convinced by Norris’ interpretation (either “genius” or “heavy-handed” depending on who you read), none questioned the enduring brilliance of Cabaret itself, which one declared as “one of the defining musicals of the post-war era”. As for Anna Maxwell Martin’s crossover into musicals, many found her to be a suitably sultry Sally, playing the role with aplomb, but others felt she isn’t a strong enough singer and doesn’t fit the bill as a committed hedonist. James Dreyfus’ Emcee also drew both cheers and jeers, while Sheila Hancock won all-round plaudits. Norris’ liberal use of nudity sparked several comments from critics, some of whom deemed it unnecessarily explicit without really being titillating or making a point. However, the majority gave the revival very respectable ratings of three and four stars.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (2 stars) – “I find Rufus Norris’ heavy-handed, misguidedly cast production at the Lyric so disappointing…. Right from the start you know Norris is making things too complicated, as James Dreyfus’ emphatically tawdry Emcee materialises in a vortex-like letter ‘O’ in the spelt out ‘Willkommen’ of Katrina Lindsay’s design…. Venezuelan choreographer Javier de Frutos gives us lots of bottom spanking and unequivocal gyrations…. That wonderful hymn to troilist malarkey, ‘Two Ladies’, is flayed within an inch of its life, as Dreyfus and his girls reveal their bottoms in the stand-up bed then go bonkers with innuendo, rubber willies, nightcaps and simulated sex games, leaving the song gasping for life on the floor…. Some critics have blathered defensively about Minnelli being too good as Sally, making the point that the character is a posh girl whose hedonism obliterates what tiny talent she might have. That sort of comes across with Anna Maxwell Martin, but the point about playing the trumpet badly is that you
have to be able to play it in the first place…. At least the wonderful Sheila Hancock as the lonely landlady Fraulein Schneider gives the musical some kind of still centre.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent – “Rufus Norris' production of the Kander/Ebb classic is the most stunningly fresh and imaginative revival of a classic musical that I have ever seen. Genius has gone into the radical re-thinking of this piece by the director, by the choreographer, Javier de Frutos, and by the designer, Katrina Lindsay.... The casting is peerless. Anna Maxwell Martin is the best and most crashingly accurate Sally Bowles to date, though she may not please people who come with closed hearts wanting Liza Minnelli. She plays Sally as all brittle, tittering bravado, desperate to be thought a dizzy debutante rather than the hideously vulnerable, hammered creature she is.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (3 stars) – “Willkommen to a revival of Kander and Ebb’s 1966 musical which, as staged by Rufus Norris, has its moments — but not the excitement of Sam Mendes’ production in 1993, still less the class of the movie Bob Fosse directed in 1972…. Look for an abundance of suspenders, leather harnesses over bare torsos, and dance that includes writhing, spanking, bum-waving and explicit sex on explicit beds. But this mostly seems jaunty or merely acrobatic or over-deliberate in its attempt to signal that Berlin is a sleazy town. Often, I felt that there was more sax than sex. Sensuality is missing, not least between principals who, in other ways, are perfectly competent and sometimes more. Anna Maxwell Martin can’t and probably shouldn’t match Liza Minelli’s glorious singing in the film, but her Sally is what she should be, an all-English waif with Roedean vowels who is pluckily but desperately vamping it up in Berlin. Michael Hayden does his best with Cliff, an unrewarding part…. The subplot, in which Cliff’s aging landlady feels impelled to reject a Jewish lodger’s offer of marriage… (is) so well acted by a shy, forlorn Sheila Hancock and a bashful, gentlemanly Geoffrey Hutchings that I wished it was more central.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (4 stars) – “No one interested in that rarest of things, a serious-minded, politically motivated musical which scorns a happy ending, will resist the emotional punch and pull of Kander and Ebb's glorious Cabaret. In Rufus Norris' inventive, musically vigorous production, the songs, from ‘Willkommen’ to the ominous ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’, reveal their imperishable allure…. Admittedly, the revival proves no match for the famous film version in which Liza Minnelli incarnated Sally Bowles, the vulnerable good-time girl, ready for a bit of bad. Norris' stylised scenes of would-be sexual decadence in the Kit Kat Klub, where almost anything goes and comes, offer no more shocking signs of immorality than the flaunting of half-naked girls and boys alike in black tights, flinging themselves up ladders and landing in the odd bed. Anna Maxwell Martin's miscast Sally exudes a waif-like innocence, quite at odds with the bohemian girl's man-swapping frivolous character. When she appears, mockingly dressed as a nun, the garb seems natural for her. Yet my reservations about Norris' production and his Sally did not overwhelmingly detract from the pleasure of Cabaret…. In a magnificent, metaphorical flourish, Norris conveys how the old liberal order collapses.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) – “The production's key point is that the rancid atmosphere of the cabaret, symbolised by James Dreyfus' magnetically reptilian Emcee, pervades the rest of Berlin. In a typically brilliant touch, the vertical cage, in which Sally sings her first number dressed as a satin-knickered nun, turns into a horizontal bed at Fraulein Schneider's sex-saturated lodging house. Occasionally, I felt the production missed a trick: the seductively horrific Kander and Ebb number, ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’, that closes the first half is staged against a panorama of nudity rather than Nazism. But the second half leaves you in no doubt about the musical's political implications…. Instead of the over-accomplished song-belter she became in the Bob Fosse movie, (Sally Bowles) is played as an irresponsibly apolitical hedonist: a reading which Anna Maxwell Martin carries off with superb fidelity…. Forty years after its premiere, Cabaret increasingly looks like one of the defining musicals of the post-war era.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - "I surrendered my heart to Liza Minnelli's Sally Bowles when I saw Bob Fosse's film version of Cabaret as a susceptible adolescent.... Anna Maxwell Martin won my heart all over again in Rufus Norris' dangerously dark, disturbingly depraved and, yes, divinely decadent new stage production of Kander and Ebb's greatest musical – and she couldn't be more different from La Minnelli. Blonde rather than dark, and with a face that suggests an Angela Brazil schoolgirl heroine gone to the bad on gin, cocaine and too much loveless sex, she is far closer to the character in Christopher Isherwood's Berlin stories.... Norris' production will have little appeal for those seeking an escapist glamorous night.... There is no doubt, however, that this is a strong and daring revival of a great musical that combines unforgettable songs with genuinely gripping and disturbing drama."
- by Caroline Ansdell & Terri Paddock
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