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Eddie Redmayne and the Ensemble. (Photo: Marc Brenner)


By Fern Siegel

Cabaret has seen several revivals since its Broadway debut in 1966. The Kander-Ebb musical, set in early 1930s Weimar Berlin, was based on "I Am A Camera," the 1951 play by John Van Druten, which in turn, was based on Christopher Isherwood's 1939 novel "Goodbye to Berlin."

The show's provenance is important, because history matters.

The story is told by Cliff (Ato Blankson-Wood), a closeted American writer who explores the decadent underbelly of the German capital, often with singer Sally Bowles (Gayle Rankin) in tow. But this production goes by a tweaked title: Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club. And the current incarnation by director Rebecca Frecknall is a mixed bag.

The musical's book by Joe Masteroff looked at a twisted cabaret world where, as the Emcee (Eddie Redmayne) puts it: "Life is beautiful." Cabaret in pre-war Berlin, much like now, is often a dark, sexy and transgressive world. Here, it's posited as a nightmare circus with grotesque characters, choreography and costumes. Redmayne, an accomplished stage performer, plays his role as a twitchy, crouching demon.

If you didn't know the story or the history of the Nazis' rise to power, you'd be clueless as to the events unfolding. Swastikas are rarely present, a departure from reality. And the Emcee, far from being a victim of Nazi brutality, is a victimizer, another interpretive twist in this unsettling revival.

A circus motif can be menacing, but it's rarely alluring. The concept is all style, sans substance. Sally, the English singer pathologically desperate for attention and stardom, is tone-deaf to politics. Rankin successfully plays her as an aggressive no-talent who becomes unhinged. Even when Cliff, aware of the impending terror, tries to take her to America, she refuses. Her vision only extends to the stage.

Dangerous obsessions are a potent theme, but to truly appreciate it, you need to see all the expressive action. And that's impossible if you stage Cabaret in the round. In short, half the audience spends most of the show watching Redmayne's back, not an ideal vantage point. That decision, in the August Wilson Theatre, which has been revamped to resemble a speakeasy with narrow hallways, is truly misguided. Producers, hoping for an immersive audience experience, also invite ticketholders into the theater 75 minutes before the curtain to order a drink and interact with the prologue cast.

Gayle Rankin (center). (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Reinterpreting any show is a chance to add depth or perspective. But this one manages to be both freakish and vague. The poorly rendered "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes" loses its edge — and the anti-Semitism of the piece is lost.

One tender element is the romance between Fraulein Schneider (Bebe Neuwirth) and the Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz (Stephen Skybell). Her rendition of "What Would You Do?" is heartbreaking. The pair are caught in a terrible historic moment. Schultz, who believes he's as German as anyone else, dismisses the Nazis as a phase, even when a brick is thrown through his window. He may see himself as German; the Germans see him as a Jew. And his miscalculations will prove deadly.

The production, which transferred from London's West End, is raw and sinister. The dancers are excellent — and there are some strong performances at key moments. Scenic and costume designer Tom Scutt transforms the theater into a Weimar-era club with period motifs bathed in green light. Redmayne performs "Money" in a black, pseudo-Goth outfit that captivates by its sheer audacity.

The lighting design by Isabella Byrd underscores the harsh tableau, but the choice of Aryan beige to suggest group conformity is problematic. Much like today, anti-Semitism and authoritarianism are engulfing countries and political parties. But they must be positioned as terrifying, not cartoonish or reductive.

If people go to the cabaret to forget their troubles, as the Emcee suggests during the "Willkommen" opening number, this Cabaret doesn't offer an escape. Instead, it's a garish intro into the hell that's coming.

Cabaret - August Wilson Theater, 254 W. 52 St.

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes