Cabaret - Studio 54 - Wednesday, November 21, 2001

This is the third time I've seen a performance of the 1998 Sam Mendes revival of Cabaret. The first was on tour early last year with Joely Fisher as Sally and Jon Peterson as the M.C., and I saw the show on Broadway late last year with Matt McGrath as the M.C. and Katie Finneran as Sally. I also have extensive familiarity with the original version of the show, and have seen a (truly awful) production using the 1987 revival script.

All in all, I enjoyed the show this time more than I did last time. Gina Gershon makes a pretty appealing Sally--she reads about her age, which is a little older than I think Sally should necessarily be, but she is very entertaining, and performs her musical numbers with great energy, even though she isn't exactly the world's best singer.

The real find this time around, though, is Raul Esparza as the M.C. I've been fortunate enough to see him in tick, tick...BOOM! and the Evita tour a couple of years ago, so I already knew he was extremely talented, but the M.C. is really a superb use of his talents. He's the funniest M.C. I've seen, and his singing style fits the role very well. It's impossible to escape comparisons with Alan Cumming, of course (judging solely by the recording, mind you), but he's a lot better than Peterson or McGrath were. If you get the chance to see Esparza in the role, don't pass it by.

It's impossible, though, for me to completely approve of this production. Don't get me wrong--it's very well done, and I like Mendes's environmental staging concepts quite a bit. (Of course, he could always take it a little farther, but Mendes did a good job overall.) I just don't really approve of most of the changes made to the book and the score. The problem with so many stage musicals from 30 or 40 (or more) years ago is that they are known primarily by their film versions, which may or may not be comparable to what was onstage. The quality of the film version of Cabaret aside, the script and the score were wildly changed, and both the 1987 and this 1998 revival incorporate some of those changes.

So, we're left with little things, like the added element of Cliff's bisexuality (which is dealt with in about five or so lines of the show in the first act, but doesn't add anything to the story), the replacement of "Sitting Pretty" with "Money, Money" and the addition of "Maybe This Time" to the score. (I actually prefer the latter alteration to the former; I've never thought "Money, Money" was as good a song as the one it replaced, and am fairly certain it was in the film only to give Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey a song together.) We're also left with some larger, more damaging changes, like "Cabaret" taking place before Sally's final scene with Cliff, which doesn't exactly make the kind of dramatic sense it probably should. "Cabaret" seems a much stronger song when it's commenting on the complete character of Sally; it can't do that if the biggest definition of her character is yet to come.

There's also the ending, which I find abhorrent. As it's sort of a surprise, I'm not really going to spoil it for you (as if there's anything to spoil), but I find it shockingly out of place and time, and it just rips some of the complexity away from the show. Because this production tries so hard to be outrageous and ugly, there already is less complexity, which makes this version of Cabaret, despite its bawdy Rob Marshall choreography, and intriguing environmental-staging significantly less rich than it should be.

But, well, it is still Cabaret, and while it's not the original version with its nearly flawless score and book, it's still pretty good. Carole Shelley, Larry Keith, Matthew Greer, Peter Benson, and Candy Buckley provide some strong supporting performances, and, of course, there's the great device of the show's chorus members also playing the band instruments. All in all, the production is strong because the idea is strong, and filtered through Mendes intriguing creative vision, the strengths are allowed to come to the forefront. I only hope that someday, someone is able (or allowed) to bring such creativity and invention to the original and superior text of the show so people can see what fostered the film and two major revivals in the first place. I have a feeling people might be surprised at the riches that never needed to be messed with.

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