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Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne

Review by Carol Middleton

Published Dec 02 -

The Melbourne production of this latest version of Cabaret, which opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 11 December, poses the big question: how does Lisa McCune shape up as Sally Bowles? Well, not as the star of the show. She isn’t even the last actor to take a bow at the end of the night. But how do you play a loser and be a winner?

This is not the Sally Bowles of the 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli. It is the Sally of the original 1966 Broadway musical on which this production by Sam Mendes is based. She is depicted as a shallow, second-rate cabaret singer, an English girl afloat in the decadent Berlin nightlife of the 1930s. Hardly a star.

McCune decided to find her own interpretation, without reference to Tina Arena or Liza Minnelli’s portrayals of the role. She refused to see Tina Arena’s Sally in Sydney or re-watch the 1972 film version with Minnelli. She went back to the source. But maybe the original concept no longer works for us.

When Hal Prince directed the Broadway premiere in 1966, it made musical theatre history. With writer Joe Masteroff, lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander, he turned Christopher Isherwood’s story Goodbye to Berlin into a musical, adding the metaphor of the Kit Kat Klub and an MC as commentator. From then on, the plot was no longer the thing. Concept and style were everything.

The strength of the stage musical and of this production, directed by BT McNicholl, is in the Kit Kat Klub setting, its low-life characters and the emcee who holds the whole show together, flirting with the nascent Nazi sentiments which darkly underscore the plot. These elements are entertaining, shocking and great theatre. The insipid character of Sally does not hold the same appeal. Presumably, that’s why the role was changed for the film version and the nationalities were reversed: Sally was American and her lover was English.

McCune’s interpretation of the role is valid, but it didn’t ring true or make for interesting theatre. Her Sally is demure, rather asexual, with a cut-glass English accent and perfect skin. That, and her naïve enthusiasm, make her stand out from the crowd at the Kit Kat Klub, from the grubby, used chorus girls and boys. The trouble is, we would rather watch the grubby boys and girls than Sally, as they are far more engaging and engaged. On the positive side, her handling of the singing was fine, if somewhat lacking in physicality and animation.

The relationship between Sally and Cliff, played by Ian Stenlake, lacks subtlety and dynamics. We care far more about the outcome of the romance between Herr Schultz (Henri Szeps) and Fraulein Schneider (Judi Connelli), both seasoned performers with immaculate timing and a depth of emotion. Connelli’s fine operatic voice does justice to the more poignant moments in John Kander’s score. Nadine Garner is compelling as the prostitute Fraulein Kost, conveying her sexuality as a commodity on offer.

This Cabaret, as conceived by Sam Mendes, is a strange mixture of the traditional musical and modern realism. Before the show starts, we are confronted by seedy, damaged young men and women, bruised and sluttish in their underwear, with tattoos and underarm hair, listlessly strutting their wares onstage. These low-life performers at the Kit Kat Klub are coolly warming up for their night of entertainment.

The Emcee, Toby Allen, bursts on to the stage and takes charge. We are there, in the Kit Kat Klub, voyeurs and consumers. He introduces us to the girls, who go through their paces with laconic gusto – an effective mix of unsmiling detachment and energetic sexuality. A far cry from glamorous homogenised chorus girls.

Some of the dancers double as instrumentalists in the orchestra, a feisty ensemble of young men and women perched on a mezzanine above the main action and framed by flashing lights. They are all skilful performers, adding to the onstage ambience, whether they are playing their instruments or lounging around in their corsets or waistcoats as spectators.

Toby Allen is a surprise hit as the Emcee. Although he has little theatrical experience and is best known as part of the clean-cut band Human Nature, he has a magnetic and powerful stage presence, holding the show together from beginning to end and setting the tone for the night with his garish nails and lips, glinting eyes and animal allure. His character was not only uninhibited but incorrigible, popping up and stealing scenes without shame. We loved his depravity. We were ready for him to take us anywhere, even to the chilling conclusion.

When the show was over, it was Toby Allen that came on to take the last bow, and he deserved it.

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© copyright 2003

Carol Middleton