Broadway review

Eddie Redmayne excels as the Emcee in a boozy Broadway ‘Cabaret’

The Daily Beast

April 21, 2024

Eddie Redmayne makes for a mesmerizing Emcee in Rebecca Frecknall’s stark and lush Broadway mounting of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret”—with as much food and drink as you can stomach.

The producers of the new Broadway production of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s sharp, dark wonderland of a musical Cabaret (August Wilson Theatre) appear certain that audiences will lap up the sumptuously immersive production they have created. Tickets are currently listed for sale through March 29, 2025. The critically acclaimed West End production from whence it spawned is still going strong in London.

The seduction begins outside on the street; the marquee of the venue announces the takeover (“Kit Kat Club at the August Wilson Theatre”), and as soon as you enter—obscuring sticker placed over your phone camera, which, let’s face it, isn’t as prohibitive to snapping away as a lockable pouch—you enter a fully realized Kit Kat world.

The theater has been (surely extremely expensively) retrofitted in its main areas into a club-meets-bar. Special cocktails and food are available; there are—as you will find on the website—further fancy drinks and food deals. For those with deep enough pockets, this is intended not just as a night out at the theater, but a full-on night out, with the producers determined you part with far more dollars than would cover a packet of Twizzlers or a gin and tonic.

You are encouraged to wander around before the show starts to meet wandering performers, and generally drink it all in as you, well, drink. The mega-transformation, and a wow-transformation it is, is in the main area of the theater itself, which has been retrofitted so that it feels as if we, the audience here to see Cabaret, are denizens of the Kit Kat Club itself. The sets and costumes by Tom Scutt are immediately transporting to late 1920 Germany’s Weimer-era pleasures, and Isabella Byrd’s lighting is just as lush and confident; you savor every snap of her shafts of spotlight on the performers.

Those performers—led by movie star Eddie Redmayne as the Emcee, Gayle Rankin as Sally Bowles, Ato Blankson-Wood as American fish-out-of-water Cliff, Bebe Neuwirth as Fraulein Schneider and Steven Skybell as Herr Schultz—are impressively operating on a small, raised, circular plinth, surrounded on all sides by the audience. Working within this self-imposed physical constraint, director Rebecca Frecknall produces clever and piercing thrill after thrill.

With minimal decoration, that plinth stands for the club, as well as Fraulein Schneider’s lodgings, and other sundry locations. Julia Cheng’s choreography is at its naughtiest and most ingenious when the company crowds and twists around one another for numbers like the first, emphatic “Wilkommen” and “Kick Line.” Sexuality and gender remain emphatically fluid; there are bodies of all types.

The excellent Redmayne’s first appearance sees his body twist and contort as he leads that “Wilkommen.” He leers, inspects, points and stares at us, ingeniously filleting every part of the Emcee’s role: a kind of otherworldly, morally questionable sprite of mischief, playful, pantomime narrator, and stricken clown who knows too much about the horrors of Nazism that Henry Gottfried’s Ernst Ludwig comes to represent (his transition from suave smuggler to stone-cold bigot is appositely stark).

A small stage in which the audience and actors are both in different ways locked concentrates all concerned on the comedy, drama, music (smoothly overseen and conducted by Jennifer Whyte), and dancing erupting before us. The connection or chemistry between Cliff and Sally, in this production, feels strained under such intense focus. Rankin escapes the shadow of Liza Minnelli to customize her own inventive take on Sally’s flare and unpredictability; her “Maybe This Time” and, of course, “Cabaret,” are raw, half-sung, half-spoken and shouted cries from a ravaged drama queen’s head and heart.

But strangely it is not Sally and Cliff we end up caring about. It’s hard to trace their opposites-attract connection at the outset through to their falling-apart at the end. Writer Cliff is certainly square, compared to all around him, but here he seems a particularly dispassionate blank slate. Simply, they lack chemistry. In contrast, the wonderful Neuwirth and Skybell deliver pristine performances as an older couple wondering what they can possibly look forward to (in delightful songs like “So What,” “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” and “Married”) and should they even look forward to anything—all this before Nazism enters the frame to shatter all it can anyway.

This production wants you to have immense fun, and to never forget the well-known horrors just over its horizon—the relationship between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz is imperiled by Nazism’s charge, a smashed window is stunningly conveyed by petals of falling paper. It also wants you to get, well, liquored up. Just what kind of night does Cabaret on Broadway intend you have? Glug pricey drinks and nibble on charcuterie and dwell on the effects of fascism, bigotry, and violence that Cabaret animates? The night this critic attended, an unruly person, likely inebriated, was thrown out for reaching at Redmayne.

But then the songs and drama of Cabaret itself are their own strange, intoxicating mixture—a push-pull of wit, wildness, mischief, fear, and dark prophecy. We watch the joy of performance, the play of bodies and romantic and sexual possibilities, the celebration of eccentricity and bohemian community, and then we see the lights turned out on all of it.

At the end of this Cabaret, fully clothed in suits, its performers are transformed to stony-faced portents of the future. Questions hang heavy: Are they the soon-to-be-victims, or soon-to-be-perpetrators, of fascism? Where will they—where will any of us if such darkness prevails again—end up? If you do drink away at this Cabaret, prepare for a mean hangover.