New York City is filled with legendary locations with that have undergone innovative and unexpected re-purposing. The Big Apple is also home to Broadway – the perfect place for such venues to shine. One such successful revamping is Studio 54, which began as an opera house, once served as the set of “The Johnny Carson Show,” and finally New York’s most infamous 70’s discotheque. The venue’s latest reincarnation is the Kit Kat Club, the setting of Sam Mendes (Into the Woods, Skyfall) and Rob Marshall’s (Nine and Chicago) high profile reboot of the Tony award-winning musical Cabaret. The pairings at first seems odd: the original cheetah print rugs of the club lead you into a smoky lit theater in the round, complete with actual cabaret tables. But the anachronism is all part of Cabaret’s theme of escapism, which is one part grimy, one part glitzy, and above all else – gutsy.
Based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, Cabaret tells the story of the chance encounter between bisexual American author Cliff Bradshaw (Bill Heck) and English nightclub singer Sally Bowles (Emma Stone) in 1940’s pre-Nazi Berlin. The show revolves, both physically and narrative-wise, around the antics of the cabaret where Sally performs, and this structure is aided by the omnipresence of the character of Emcee-cum-narrateur Alan Cummings (The Good Wife). Cummings is actually reprising the role, for which he won a Tony for back in 2004, and even audience members who knew nothing of his prior performance should be thankful. Cummings’ performance – one that involves everything from gyrating to lurking about the edges of every scene to acting as the embodiment of the era’s psychosexual tension – is one that was clearly informed and bettered by his past experience. He gives a portrayal that seems as improvised as the post-intermission “audience interaction” he initiates, and the audience can’t help but enjoy how obviously he’s enjoying his reprisal.
In spite of the fact that Cummings is reprising an award-winning role, the audience’s overwhelming demographic of young-to-middle-age females implies that he’s likely not the cast member people are coming to see. Emma Stone makes her Broadway (and singing) debut as the iconic Sally Bowles, a role that in its current form was written specifically for the late Natasha Richardson – who, like Cummings, received a Tony for her performance. The bar was set high for Ms. Stone to take center stage, and for the most part she doesn’t disappoint. At times, the it-girl film actress’ superb British accent even renders her virtually unrecognizable – which is no small feat, considering the fact that she retained her signature red hair color for the role. Stone is utterly believable (and utterly not herself) doing everything from prattling on about why Sally wears green nail polish to belting the show’s liberating title song. Many a leading lady of film has recently taken to the Great White Way, and Cabaret is no exception; Stone’s turn in the role was preceded by Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn) and after the end of her run, on February 15th, will be succeeded by Sienna Miller (American Sniper). The low-belt nature of the role makes it difficult to discern whether or not Stone has real vocal chops – and, along with them, the potential to do other musicals. The matter is further complicated by the fact that, from the first shortened note she hit, it was obvious to any trained listener that Stone was sick. It would be unfair to judge Stone’s abilities based on a single flu-season performance, but for the most part she handled the music deftly.
The interactions of the colorful supporting characters heightened the humorous elements of the show, and occasionally the zaniness of these exchanges detracted from its more serious elements. One example of this is the fact that the show not only includes a love song about fruit, but also the fact that the production chose to employ multiple glowing pineapple lanterns for this number. This could all be considered a method of inflating comedy only to heighten the tragedy, but when the tragedy does, inevitably, strike at the show’s close, these crazy elements only seem to trivialize its harrowing message. That being said, the most successful part of Cabaret’s appeal is the “allure” to which Sally refers in the first act; the audience gets so thoroughly engrossed in the revelry that the eventual gravity of the show hits like an atom bomb. The show’s closing is a tasteful and pensive depiction of the gritty reality historically faced by Berlin’s inhabitants, one that took real courage for the production to construct.
Upon entering the world of Cabaret, the Emcee entreats you to “Leave your troubles behind!” This is just what the show allows you to do, if only for the time that its “beautiful” celebration can endure. In the case of this Cabaret, however, there is an interesting paradox at play. Stepping back out onto the reality of a New York Street allows for a different kind of escape for the audience: one in which they just might have the chance to meet an un-made up Emma Stone in a much more intimate setting than would be typical in Hollywood. Stone signs Playbills for the small crowd, indirectly confirming her illness by chatting with fans in a raspy voice that in no way detracts from her genuineness. A careful observer couldn’t help but notice the green fingernails she’d talked about in the show, which couldn’t actually be seen from the audience. They are not just green, but short, and bitten. They could be the nails of the anxious, hedonistic
Sally, or the sweet-but-likely-stressed Stone. When the intuitive fan said “Love the nails,” she laughed at the joke and replied with “Thanks.” When a discotheque becomes a 40’s nightclub, and a movie star becomes both stage icon and totally herself in one evening, any audience member can’t help but be tempted to wonder: maybe life really is a cabaret.