‘Cabaret’ Review: What Good Is Screaming Alone in Your Room?

Just east of its marquee, the August Wilson Theater abuts an alley you probably didn’t notice when last you were there, perhaps to see “Funny Girl,” its previous tenant. Why would you? Where the trash goes is not usually part of the Broadway experience.

But it is for the latest revival of “Cabaret,” which opened at the Wilson on Sunday. Audience members are herded into that alley, past the garbage, down some halls, up some stairs and through a fringed curtain to a dimly lit lounge. (There’s a separate entrance for those with mobility issues.) Along the way, greeters offer free shots of cherry schnapps that taste, I’m reliably told, like cough syrup cut with paint thinner.

Too often I thought the same of the show itself.

But the show comes later. First, starting 75 minutes beforehand, you can experience the ambience of the various bars that constitute the so-called Kit Kat Club, branded in honor of the fictional Berlin cabaret where much of the musical takes place. Also meant to get you in the mood for a story set mostly in 1930, on the edge of economic and spiritual disaster, are some moody George Grosz-like paintings commissioned from Jonathan Lyndon Chase. (One is called “Dancing, Holiday Before Doom.”) The $9 thimbleful of potato chips is presumably a nod to the period’s hyperinflation.

This all seemed like throat clearing to me, as did the complete reconfiguration of the auditorium itself, which is now arranged like a large supper club or a small stadium. (The scenic, costume and theater design are the jaw-dropping work of Tom Scutt.) The only relevant purpose I can see for this conceptual doodling, however well carried out, is to give the fifth Broadway incarnation of the 1966 show a distinctive profile. It certainly does that.

The problem for me is that “Cabaret” has a distinctive profile already. The extreme one offered here frequently defaces it.

Let me quickly add that Rebecca Frecknall’s production, first seen in London, has many fine and entertaining moments. Some feature its West End star Eddie Redmayne, as the macabre emcee of the Kit Kat Club (and quite likely your nightmares). Some come from its new New York cast, including Gayle Rankin (as the decadent would-be chanteuse Sally Bowles) and Bebe Neuwirth and Steven Skybell (dignified and wrenching as an older couple). Others arise from Frecknall’s staging itself, which is spectacular when in additive mode, illuminating the classic score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and the amazingly sturdy book by Joe Masteroff.

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