Dressed in little more than dirty pink knickers and torn black stockings, the bruised and beaten dancers of Cabaret's Kit Kat Klub personify all that was Weimar Berlin in 1929 -- an exotic, tawdry and ultimately tragic mix of social and historical kindling that would eventually burn a passageway to hell on earth. Such is British director Sam Mendes's fiercely diabolical take on the classic Kander and Ebb musical, a revival that has garnered dozens of major awards, including four Tonys.
It's a shame Houstonians will not get to experience the much-lauded show as Mendes, the director who copped an Oscar for his equally disturbing American Beauty, originally conceived it in 1993 for his London theatrical company, the Donmar Warehouse, and as it is now being staged in New York in the same building that once housed the aptly raunchy Studio 54. The audience -- at least those who can afford the high-dollar seats -- sit at club-style tables, sipping their booze while the show pushes its way around them in raw-boned cabaret style. The tattooed and tarnished dancing girls and boys who are the black heart and wasted soul of this seedy world get close enough to touch, if you dare. (And according to the production's Web site, a few New Yorkers have dared).
But even in the velvety, rarefied pomp of Jones Hall, the brutal power of Mendes's vision electrifies the theater with all the sinister shock that a naked ass emblazoned with the stamp of a crimson swastika should. In fact, the sad tale of Sally Bowles (Lea Thompson) -- the slutty slip of a nightclub singer who has no talent and even less spine, the character Liza Minnelli made so famous in the 1972 film version -- seems almost irrelevant when pinned up against the backdrop of this macabre Boschian nightmare. Only an actress of Natasha Richardson's depth and power -- she won a Tony and much critical praise for her Sally when the production opened at the Roundabout Theater Company in New York in 1998 -- could hold her own in the middle of this terrifying world. Thompson's charming schoolgirl, endlessly grinning, is too flimsy for the weight of this stomp-kick production.
Her American lover, Cliff (Jay Goede), the quietly observant writer who is attached to the story only so that he can live to tell the dirty tale, is most interesting for the fact that he has become more openly bisexual in this interpretation. Even the energy of the more relevant subplot concerning Cliff's middle-aged landlady, Fräulein Schneider (Alma Cuervo), and her Jewish fiancé, Herr Schultz (Hal Robinson), is swallowed up by the mise-en-scène of the universe in which they live.
It is the Kit Kat Girls and Boys who will strut and sing and slap their way to the center of this cabaret. They are already on stage when the audience begins to drift into the theater. Dressed in silk tap pants, dark garters, leather and lace, their lips painted crimson, their eyes ink-black and their skin dead-white, covered in bad tattoos, blue track marks and an assortment of wounds -- envision Madonna on crack -- these are a desperately cynical people, drowning in apathy and a morose hatred of the world in which they live. But when we first meet them, they are warming up for their show, stretching, smoking, sometimes touching each other in silently illicit gestures. Their eyes dart over, then linger on each other's bodies, on their own bodies, on their own outstretched and undulating limbs. They touch themselves.
The house lights go down. A blinding white light flashes from a doorway peephole -- is this a moment of recognition of the horrors to come? -- and the show begins. Jon Peterson's Emcee, a ghoulishly beautiful Pucklike devil, sings the unforgettable "Wilkommen" like a man on fire. He flails his arms; he holds his palms flat against the air; he stomps his feet as he tricks about the boards, grabbing his groin and laughing through his painted red lips. Rob Marshall's choreography is intentionally crude. These Kit Kat performers are supposed to be the bottom of the bottom, talentless, tasteless and brutally sexual. Gone are the whispery, slippery, sensual moves of Cabaret's past. These are the addicts, drunks and ne'er-do-wells of lowlife theater who live by their bodies, everything else be damned. Come on backstage, says the Emcee, to a front-row couple, winking and practically licking his lips. "We'll have a sandwich."
Creeping across this naughty underworld is the infinitely more dangerous shadow of Nazism. And the darkness becomes more unsettling with each scene. The first act ends with a chilling version of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," and by the second act, the Kit Kat dancers have lost their individuality. Even the boys look like the girls. Bright white lights burn in the distance, and their eyes and noses are lost in the blinding glare. They look like the skeletal remains of a brutal nightmare. Sally's life falls apart. Cliff runs home to America. And the Germans are left to their own horror. The finale is as haunting as any I've ever seen.
Deeply disturbing and wildly theatrical, Mendes's terrifying vision serves as a dark reminder of all that can go terribly wrong in the collective human psyche. Welcome to his world.
Cabaret runs through Saturday, July 8, at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, (713)629-3700. $30.50-$55.
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