Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Life is a Kabarett

When Hannes told me that Cabaret was playing at TIPI am Kanzleramt – that delightful ‘tent’ venue in the Tiergarten -- I have to say I didn’t rush there. How many times have I seen Cabaret over the last forty years? I can’t count. And Cabaret in German? Ah well, I guess its part of the same ‘good old days’ thing that I recognised in this afternoon’s 'Modernen Zeit’ exhibition. But then other folk, too, told me I ‘should’ see it (why? I wondered) and so last night I strolled up to the grand, green Tiergarten from my home in the Nollendorfstrasse (30 minutes flat, even with the ghastly pedestrian lights), and met up with Hannes and Anna for a night ‘at the musical’. TIPI is, in fact, an ideal venue for this show. It is sufficiently compact, and it has the right ‘Kabarett’ atmosphere. Even more ideal, to my thinking, would be the companion Bar Jeder Vernunft, where this production was originally staged, in a version that has been (sometimes too obviously) now opened out for this larger platform … and, of course, auditorium.

The original stage musical Cabaret was not a huge success, and it owes its continuing life very largely to its film version and the performance therein of Liza Minnelli in the role of Sally Bowles. The filmmakers, alas, in search of youth and beauty, destroyed the show’s two most interesting, central – and ageing -- characters (Herr Schultz and Frln Schneider), so I am always very happy indeed to get back to the original theatre text. Or something like it. The TIPI version – and boy! how many ‘versions’ of Cabaret have there been, tacked together by royalty-chasers and usually involving chunks of the film – seems to me to be sufficiently back-to-basics (I admit to a groan when a yowled chunk of ‘Maybe This Time’ was tacked in), but there were some bits which I didn’t think I recognised. This may simply be because it’s so long since I heard an un-butchered performance of Cabaret. This production’s principal curiosity was to have the text in German, and the lyrics sung in either English or German or, in the disastrous case of ‘Cabaret’, half and half.

The stage production was suitably ‘of today’. The first half was slick, quick-moving, occasionally visually arresting (a practical train outdid Miss Saigon’s helicopter easily), it didn’t seem to run nearly 100 minutes, and it was pretty loud and pretty soulless. But, come half time, the whole thing changed gear. Suddenly the audience (mostly ladies with hair, why?) was no longer giggling at the romantic and emotional Schultz-Schneider scenes, but cooing; suddenly the Sally, who had done little more than shout and flail her way through the first half, started to act; suddenly we had a play. A musical play. Instead of an agreeable but pretty banal heap of lively camping and leaping around. And I cheered inwardly. I guess it depends what you want Cabaret to be. For me the Schultz/Schneider story is the heart of the show. Miss Bowles is a supporting character. But, of course, since Liza Minnelli, the musical and the character are no longer allowed or expected to be like that. We don’t get the silly little English Sally Bowles as written by Isherwood and van Druten, we get Liza Minnelli Bowles. Topbilled. And there aren’t a handful of performers, maybe even a fingerful, in the world who can ‘be’ Liza Minnelli Bowles in such a way as not to suffer horribly in comparison with the lady they are apeing. I was pretty sure I was in trouble as soon as tonight’s Sally (Sophie Berner) walked on. She was wearing a Liza Minnelli wig. Oh, dear, I thought. It is going to be a that sort of production of Cabaret. Well, happily, it didn’t turn out quite that way, and that very largely thanks to some decidedly fine performances elsewhere in the cast. 

Easily my favourite performer of the evening was the Cliff (Guido Kleineidam). How often does that happen? That Cliff is the strongest character in this musical? Almost never, I would say. And, guess what, it gives the piece a great focus. The 'I' who is 'the camera' is important and central, and not just an 'instrument'. Unlike the lady, Kleineidam never forgot to act for a second, and he established a credible, interesting and moving personality right from the start. And in the tiny bit he has to sing, he even turned up with a most agreeably uneffortful baritone. It was thoroughly due to him that the Cliff-Sally relationship developed any shape and any interest at all, and his final departure from Berlin, surrounded by the debris of his Berlin life, was decidedly the most moving moment of an evening which didn’t go in for very many moving moments. A first-class performance. 

Frln Schneider (Regina Lemnitz as replacement for Maren Kroymann) and Herr Schultz (Peter Kock), who turned out, miraculously, both to have wholly agreeable singing voices, played their scenes well – though they were left standing curiously ‘undirected’ in the middle of an open stage during confrontations which cry out for intimacy. They made ‘Heirath’ into the musical hit of the night ... I was humming it in the interval and again after the show. They also both played their characters as pleasantly ‘ordinary’ everyday people: the role of Frln Schneider, often star cast, can easily become overcooked. She is a boarding-house keeper. Here, reality remained, and the show gained greatly. So much for the ‘real’ people of the tale. Except, of course, Sally should be one of these, too. I haven’t enthused over any Sally since I saw her played, with touching naivety (and plenty of voice), by a little blonde ex-chorine at Farnham Repertory Theatre in the 1980s. I guess that lass hadn’t seen the movie, or else she had the sense to know that she wasn’t equipped to compete with the Minnelli image. So much the better for her. And me. Tonight’s shapeless Sally was all over the place. She blasted her way through act one, with nary an ounce of light and shade, and just when – in the second act – one started to feel that there was a real and sympathy-worthy woman hiding under that tacky wig, she came out with shudderworthy, draggy, misshapen versions of ‘Maybe This Time’ and ‘Cabaret’ which seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of the show or the (otherwise very effective) orchestrations. No. As the youth of today say: ‘fail’. 

 The role of the emcee (Eric Rentmeister) was efficiently played – in song, speech and dance – in the established, but now rather uninteresting, Joel Grey style, the four Kit Kat girls (one an extremely clever male, Mogens Eggemann) were choreographed, in the manner we are supposed to believe has something to do with the 1930s, in a most lively, vigorous and enjoyable set of routines, and the small parts were all competently played. Except one. How on earth did the director permit the amateurish, end-of-the-pier portrayal of Frln Kost? Has he (and she) never heard of ‘less is better’? This woman’s pantomimish antics took the edge off the scenes of Frln Schneider’s romance and also off the climactic end of act one. The two key moments of the evening’s drama were almost ruined by an inept clown. 

I realise that my comments here do contain a lot of negatives. But, at the end of the show, I am happy to say that (as the ladies with hair squealed out jolly volleys of hoorays) I really didn’t feel too bad at all. I wasn’t complaining about the sum total of the evening's entertainment. Cliff had been superb, Schultz and Schneider very fine … and that meant that the show’s heart had been sweetly and dramatically solid. Sally? I’d more or less given up on her as soon as I saw the wig, and I simply didn’t let her bother me too much. She was back where she should be: a supporting character. Frln Kost, of course, did bother me .. but then, to make up for her, we had the train! A Cabaret with a solid heart will do me. Especially when it is as vigorously enlivened by its Girls and by its orchestra as this one is, and especially when it is played in such a friendly venue … but I think I may now go for a few years without seeing another version – any version – of this musical. Enough is enough is enough.

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