By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
It begins before the show starts: barechested bartenders pec-flexing as they shake martinis in the lobby bar. Roundabout Theatre, under Sam Mendes' direction has created the Kit Kat Klub with tiny tables topped with red-fringed lamps; as the posters say, announcing this latest revival of Kander and Ebbs' iconic musical, Cabaret, "Wilkommen back." It's a show so smart, so daring, so substantial that it manages to be wildly entertaining about fascism and anti-Semitism.
Scholars tell us that the ancient Greek masks of Comedy and Tragedy were often hung on the same hook. The face underneath those masks might have been Alan Cumming's. His dazzling Emcee is at first comic, leading us on a louche pansexual romp through the decadence of Berlin during the Weimar years. Then his performance grows darker and darker, as the show does, as despair and terror creep in as the Nazis gain power. Cumming is so irresistible that nobody else onstage stands much of a chance. Even when he's on a platform or a balcony watching the goings-on among the poor and deluded, his presence is magnetic.
As Fraulein Schneider, the landlady who can turn a blind eye to prostitution as well as to Nazis, Linda Emond is touching and sad and utterly believable; her song announces the zeitgeist, evoking the whole 1930 mindset withthe lyrics: "For the sun will rise and the moon will set/And you learn hot to settle for what you get/ It will all go on if we're here or not,/So who cares? So what?/ So who cares? So what?"
Danny Burstein plays her lover and boarder, Herr Schultz, the Jew who insists he is German, in a deeply moving performance of self-delusion.
Bill Heck as Clifford Bradshaw, the romantic lead, has a fine voice and is suitably handsome as the bisexual writer who will become the author of The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood, the book Cabaret is based on. Aaron Krohn plays Ernst Ludwig, the swastika-wearing operative who befriends Bradshaw who finally discovers how easily he has been manipulated.
Michelle Williams, lovely as she is, is the weak link in this big strong cast. She seems neither desperate nor outrageous nor self-mocking, as Sally Bowles needs to be, and even in her huge rendition of the show's title song, she seems to be trying too hard, too rehearsed, too controlled, too humorless. I didn't believe for a minute that she would or could "go like Elsie."
In Act One, Emcee plays a recording of a boy's angelic voice singing the Nazi anthem, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," a song so beautiful and so chilling that when it is reprised later by the full company it is devastating.
The costumes (designed by William Ivey Long) tell the history--to describe them would be to spoil the production's shocks--but watch the sexy barely-clad orchestra disappear near the end and Emcee's stormtrooper's black leather coat reveal first a comically erotic outfit and then, finally, a costume tragically un-funny.
Studio 54, 54th & Broadway. www.roundabouttheater.org