Everything Is Beautiful At the Grunge Cabaret

As I say, when the English catch a whiff of the sewer, they’re in heaven. The excitingly revisionist, flawed and appropriately sordid production of Cabaret , which comes to us via acclaim in London, is a case of nostalgie de la boue run riot. Its hot English director, Sam Mendes, takes no prisoners; his style here is Weimar Berlin in your face. And there are times when what’s in your face is quite surprising.

Put it this way: If there have been hairier showgirls in the history of Broadway, I don’t want to know about it. The Kit Kat Girls (of the show’s famously seedy Kit Kat Club) are real, almost too real, with their heroin eyes and plump, insolent thighs, with their body scars and bruises and stinky armpits. I adored them, actually. They make a change. Also, they play in the band. They’re different. They are not the traditionally honed hookers of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s other smashing musical across town, Chicago . The Kit Kat Girls are fun and sexy, depending on your taste. But they look as if Mr. Mendes and his co-director, the American choreographer Rob Marshall, dragged them out of the sewer, which is as it should be.

In re-creating the sinister Berlin night life of the 1930′s, the production is dirtier and more uncompromisingly decadent than anything in Hal Prince’s memorable original 1966 production. Mr. Mendes is in the top league of British directors who reinvent the classics, including vintage Broadway musicals, and his hands are all over his new production. He has thrown down two bold aces in Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles and Alan Cumming as the M.C., for both of them are brilliant actors rather than natural musical performers. Ms. Richardson’s last Broadway role was an acclaimed Anna in Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie ; Mr. Cumming’s last role was Hamlet in London. This Cabaret is defiantly and blatantly anti-show-biz, and certain seductive powers have been lost in the process. Yet the two stars triumph remarkably over the enduring memory of the two show-biz legends, Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, who owned the roles before them.

Mr. Cumming has achieved some kind of demonic miracle by utterly reinventing the nameless host and M.C. played by the great Mr. Grey as a sexless Satan in whiteface, a seductively vaudevillian thing , a malevolent, evil sprite that in a different life might have been an avenging angel. I still remember Mr. Grey shocking and repulsing me-suckering us all with show-biz charm-in his song and dance routine with a gorilla “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” (“She wouldn’t look Jewish at all”). Mr. Cumming, on the other hand, makes no pretense of even ironic charm. His ” Willkommen ” isn’t an invitation to mere naughty pleasures; his crooked finger beckoning us inside the club “where everything is beautiful” makes us hesitate. He’s saying, Enter at your own risk.

Mr. Cumming is a creepily androgynous host with glitter nipples, a swastika tattoo on his bum and low-cut leather jock strap hung, it seems, from some postmodern medieval contraption involving garters (grunge costumes by William Ivey Long). He could be an S&M pervert’s wet dream. He is not a pretty sight, but he’s a unique invention.

I wouldn’t go near him on a Saturday night. Yet after the intermission, he invites coyly obliging audience members to do a little dance with him on stage like a cheap entertainer ingratiating himself with giggling tourists. Who are they dancing with-the actor, or the character he’s playing? It’s a peculiar moment which doesn’t belong in the show, as if the foul M.C. of Mr. Cumming no longer catered to the wormy subworld of 1930′s Berlin but had become the jolly host of a cruise on The Love Boat . His performance, nevertheless, is an astonishing achievement-alive and menacing, icily clever, uncompromising, and unafraid.

Natasha Richardson’s coked-up, cut-price Holly Golightly from Chelsea, England, is another excitingly dangerous creation. The actress walks the high wire without a safety net, and has reinvented Liza Minnelli’s iconic version of Sally Bowles. Ms. Minnelli didn’t play Sally on the stage, incidentally; Bob Fosse’s 1972 film of Cabaret made her legend. Ms. Richardson doesn’t pretend to be able to belt out a Kander and Ebb show-stopper or two as Ms. Minnelli sure can. Her Sally is a loser, for one; a willful hedonist, a naïve second-rater. We would expect this actress to mine the unglitzy depths of a role that has been, till now, Ms. Minnelli’s tremulous hymn to hope and a devil-may-care future. But she gutsily reverses the show-biz cliché and makes the traditionally glamorous Sally Bowles frighteningly real. Her “Maybe This Time” is the cry of someone who isn’t going to make it. Her heart-stopping version of “Cabaret”-as in “Life is a cabaret, old chum”-is a raw emotional embrace, not of survival in a life of easy pleasure, but of oblivion. Ms. Richardson’s achievement makes us aware, perhaps for the first time, that Sally will die young.

Kander and Ebb’s fine, textured score (and tribute to Kurt Weill) is always a pleasure, though “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” remains a memorably rousing hymn to the wrong cause. (You catch yourself humming it.) The book by Joe Masteroff, based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and John Van Druten’s stage adaptation of them, I Am a Camera , suffices, but it can be perilously underwritten. The writer-hero, Clifford Bradshaw, a.k.a. the young Christopher Isherwood in search of Berlin boys, is a colorless fellow, and the dullish John Benjamin Hickey can do little with him. The accomplished Mary Louise Wilson is surprisingly uncomfortable in the role of Fraulein Schneider, the landlady turned Nazi collaborator. (The legendary Brechtian, Lotte Lenya, originated the role and gave it its dark, biting edge). Ron Rifkin’s Herr Schultz, the Jewish grocer who melts Fraulein Schneider’s heart with-of all sweet things-a pineapple, sings like a wounded bear howling in the forest, but no matter. We love him. He brings honest, dignified sentiment to the piece. Mr. Rifkin is genuine in everything he does.

After the sensational opening scene, I wasn’t always happy with the Bob Fosse-inspired choreography of Rob Marshall. Once you’ve seen a hundred crotch shots, you’ve seen them all. I thought the idea of performing the show in a specially designed cabaret room with little tables and faux Thonet chairs replacing the orchestra seats gimmicky. It’s meant to simulate decadent Weimar Berlin. But we’re not in decadent Weimar Berlin. We’re in a dump on 43rd Street. “You’re part of the show,” I was told earnestly. Sure! Me and Mike Nichols at the table next door.

Director Sam Mendes believes the cabaret room breaks through conventional theater barriers. But it doesn’t, really. It creates another convention of a theme park in miniature. At the same time, as soon as the show begins, everyone seated at the tables quickly rearranges their chairs to face the stage, exactly like a conventional theater. And best wishes to you , Mr. Mendes.

Still, whatever the flaws of this uncompromising Cabaret , pause a moment and look around you. Among the new Broadway musicals this season, we have a pious fairy tale ( The Sound of Music ), a superior cartoon ( The Lion King ), a historical American pageant ( Ragtime ), an American history lesson ( 1776 ) and a romantic adventure ( The Scarlet Pimpernel ). Cabaret may be in your face, but there’s more vital rough humanity in it than in any of the others. It’s essential to Broadway. Cabaret isn’t corporate culture, Disney or cozy revivalism. It isn’t for children. It’s unsafe.