Based on the short stories of Christopher Isherwood, Cabaret tells the story of young American writer Cliff and his acquaintance with the enigmatic cabaret performer, Sally Bowles, who he meets in the sordid 'Kit Kat Klub'. A touching sub-plot concerns the relationship between the neighbours' elderly landlady, Fraulein Schneider, and her Jewish beau, Herr Schultz, who grapple with the uncertainty of their future together. The eccentric and usually camp 'Emcee', punctuates proceedings with his musical commentary on the main action.
The musical boasts an incisive and not overly sentimental book by Joe Masteroff and the superbly crafted songs by Fred Ebb and John Kander. With their mix of classic Broadway, 1920's jazz and point numbers, the team were clearly inspired by the Weill/Eisler/Brecht musicals of the Weimar period. This approach has well withstood the test of time, still packing a punch and then some.
If only the current production at Chichester could have packed as much of a wallop. As directed by Roger Redfarn (who, for the record, has done an admirable job considering he was brought in late in the day), it appears to lack enough new ideas. The libertine and amoral Kit Kat atmosphere is evinced by in-your-face displays of transexualism and sado-masochism, with little nuance. As a result, the impact of the spooky Emcee is largely lost. And spookiness is what Julian Bleach does best - certainly he's no dancer and can only just about carry a tune with a trademark voice that grates.
As Fraulein Schneider, Sarah Badel is every inch the survivor, demonstrating a fine command of the stage with her Mother Courage-style pragmatism. As her tragic Jewish optimist beau, Brian Greene boasts an excellent singing voice but could do with some rather more focussed direction to draw him away from caricature. Even still, the first act finale - in which the couple's party ends with their friends and neighbours joining in the Nazi hymn 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' - sends a shiver down the spine.
Technically, Alexandra Jay cruises through the central role with ease but lacks enough sexual charisma to add the extra oomph. Where's the mystery, vulnerability and seductiveness of Sally? Jay's final musical number (the title song) is delivered downstage at full belt with all the subtlety of Ethel Merman, the song's undertones lost entirely.
Cabaret should not only delight our ears and eyes, but move our souls. While the Chichester production largely succeeds in the former, it lacks in the latter.
- Stephen Gilchrist