On Broadway, this is the age of the "revisal," when vintage musicals are significantly reworked in new productions. Usually, this means revisions to the book and score, occasionally it means a novel directorial concept. Rarely does it mean a production as daring or brilliantly effective as the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Cabaret. Of course, Joe Masteroff has reworked his book and songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb have rearranged their score, dropping some numbers and adding others from the 1974 film version. But perhaps the most important factor is Sam Mendes' environmental staging, which turns the entire theatre into the Kit Kat Klub, giving a vivid sense of immediacy to this tale of the last decadent days of the Weimar Republic.
The contribution of the production's design team cannot be overestimated. Scenic designer Robert Brill transformed the former Henry Miller Theatre into the seedy Berlin dive, with the orchestra placed above the thrust stage that allows for constant audience contact. Working with painters from Cobalt Studios, Brill had the walls artfully painted to create an evocatively distressed look (a local artist, Lisa Sexton, whose artwork decorated the walls of Club Expo, was contacted to add some murals of period movie stars). Brill's design work also involved outfitting the theatre--re-rigging the linesets, renovating the dressing room towers, installing tables and chairs, as well as bars, so patrons can enjoy drinks during the performance.
Adding to the atmosphere of the Kit Kat Club is the shadowy, deeply saturated film-noir-in-color lighting design of Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari. Working on the premise that the Kit Kat Club was, says Eisenhauer, "a second-rate, patched-together environment," the designers created a plot that has "a handmade or homemade quality. This is not a sophisticated system or planned pattern of angles." Perhaps not, but the result is a series of stunning moments. A swirling mirrorball casts a darkly romantic mood for the melancholy ballad "Heinraten." The MC appears in a single pool of light, bearing a gramophone that plays an eerie version of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" as sung by a child tenor. A backwash of harsh white light turns the stage into a death camp for the production's grim finale.
Given the unusual configuration of the theatre--cast members performing on the stage, which thrusts practically into the center of the orchestral level, with the band placed above and behind them--sound designer Brian Ronan had plenty of challenges. Using a variety of speakers placed in strategic locations, he created an intimate, realistic sound design that allows the audience to hear every word of Kander's lyrics. Cleverly concealed body mics add to the illusion that one is in a 1930s nightclub. Ronan also designed a number of sound effects, including that of a window breaking, which greatly adds to the sense of unease as the Nazis rise to power.
Costume designer William Ivey Long ransacked New York's flea markets and vintage clothing stores, looking for period wear, which was then recreated by a number of costume shops. His costumes for Cabaret underline the characters' desperate gaiety, with outfits that, while often quite distressed, nevertheless have a pronounced sensuality. Members of the orchestra and chorus sport revealing costumes, heavy on the underwear, while older characters such as Fraulein Schneider, the middle-aged landlady, wear costumes that bespeak a shabby gentility typical of the early Depression years.
Put together, the work of all five designers combines a vivid feeling for the period with a startling present-tense quality. The audience is not allowed to experience the play as a narrative from which they are separated by nearly seven decades; the evil of Fascism can happen at any time, including today. Since its original opening, the production has moved to a larger venue at the former 70s disco hot spot Studio 54. Despite the change, what has remained intact is the extravagantly seedy, darkly compelling design, a key factor in making Cabaret an electrifying and disturbing experience