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First Nighter: Sam Mendes's Revived 'Cabaret' Runs on Dimmed Lights

04/24/2014 08:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2014

Sometimes the melancholy metaphor that claims "You can't go home again" comes to mind unexpectedly. I'm sorry to say it has too recently occurred to me. It happened at the Studio 54 revival of the 1998 Cabaret so beautifully engineered then by Sam Mendes, Rob Marshall and Cynthia Onrubia. That's the one that introduced the extraordinary Alan Cumming (also currently Eli Gold on The Good Wife) to Broadway.

Let me quickly specify that Cumming, repeating the role that brought him a Tony 16 years ago, is every juicy leer as good now as he was then in his role of the deliciously decadent compere at the Weimar Republic's Kit Kat Klub in Berlin, where, we're assured, life is beautiful and the girls are beautiful. A decade and a half later, he uses the intervening years to supply the slinky fellow with a hint of the weariness that descends after cajoling too many patrons to cheer up over too many cheerless nights.

There's no fall-off either in those marvelously evocative Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht-esque songs that Fred Ebb and John Kander created, most of them presented as items in the gaudy, bawdy Kit Kat setting and played by a buff girl-and-boy band under Patrick Vaccariello's hot conducting.

And keep in mind that of the gritty ditties, the title song is one of the last Broadway concoctions to establish itself as a standard. Another is "Maybe This Time," which was added to the score for the 1972 film so Liza Minnelli could sell it. But "Willkommen" is the best opening number of any show this 2013-14 season, and then there's "Mein Herr," "I Don't Care Much"--well, every one is a winner.

And there's "If You Could See Her," with it's stinging closing lyric "She doesn't look Jewish at all." That's the line restored now (as it was in Bob Fosse's film), although--afraid of alienating Jewish audiences--director Hal Prince had it changed for the original production.

(For the record: "Meeskite" and "Why Should I Wake Up?" have been dropped, and "Money" is now substituted for "The Money Song.")

Best to mention a couple more current pluses before getting to the disappointments: Linda Emond as boarding-house keeper Frau Schneider and the when-isn't-he-working Danny Burstein as her Jewish fruiterer-wooer Herr Schultz act and sing with touching conviction. There's much to be said, too, for Gayle Rankin as Frau Schultz's resident hooker Fraulein Kost and Aaron Krohn as the budding Nazi Herr Ernst Ludwig. (When not in character, Rankin and Krohn play, respectively, the banjo and the accordion as Kit Kat Club musicians.)

Time now unfortunately, for the problems besetting this Cabaret incarnation. The major one is the accomplished movie star Michelle Williams in her Main Stem bow as Sally Bowles--or let's just say as a Sally Bowles who isn't very much like the one Christopher Isherwood introduced in The Berlin Stories and John Van Druten transferred to the stage.

Forget that the ur-Sally Bowles was talentless and really couldn't sing, which makes a puzzle of a musical in which she has to warble lark-like. Whatever, Kander and Ebb got her singing, and who's going to complain at this late date? Also to Williams's credit, she sings more than well enough and certainly much better that she's given out in pre-opening interviews she thought herself capable.

The singing's not the snag. Just about everything else, starting with her English accent, is. Supposedly, Sally Bowles is a young and naïve English expatriate affecting sophistication while remaining uninterested in, even ignorant of, everything that hasn't to do with herself and her negligible career.

Williams is apparently made up to look like a young woman overdoing it. (Isherwood's Sally is 19.) The effect, however, is that she appears to be a hanger-on several years past her prime and too old for visiting American, would-be novelist Clifford Bradshaw (Bill Heck, also in over his head), with whom she has the latest but possibly most promising of her ill-fated affairs.

The high point and low point of her performance are the same: her rendition of the title song. Technically, she delivers it extremely well and for her efforts receives sustained applause. As an expression of Sally Bowles's state of mind, the way librettist Joe Masteroff and Ebb write, Williams has it all wrong--and so have director Mendes, Marshall and Onrubia, if they're allowing this misconstrued treatment.

Throughout Ebb's well-wrought lyrics and Kander incessantly rousing melody, Williams presents Sally as angry, as finally and thoroughly disillusioned at her situation, as practically a ghost of her former self. (The lighting by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari add to this.) Yet, having had Cliff walk out on her just before she returns to her uncertain Kit Kat Club stint, Masteroff's Sally still hasn't come to terms with what has actually happened. She's baffled. She's intent on proving herself. She wants to convince herself that the words she's singing are actually valid, that life, despite all, is a cabaret. She needs the sentiment to be true. She's timidly upbeat.

Aside from Williams's serious misstep, the most noticeable drawback to the backward glance Mendes et al have made at this Cabaret is that the conviction, the sense of adventure, the challenge of doing it their way is lacking.

Granted, Robert Brill's set--initially designed for the now defunct Herman Miller as renamed The Kit Kat Klub before its Studio 54 move--holds up. So do William Ivey Long's costumes (many reimagined now). But the overall feel is of something being recreated by the numbers.

Though the chase lights chase each other on cue and the lamps on the cabaret-esque auditorium table go on when the Kit Kat Klub is on view and go off when it's daily life at Frau Schneider's, the electricity that charged the air in 1998 and for the length of that run is somehow missing.

Of course, there will be two audiences for this revival--the audience that saw it then and the audience that didn't. While the former will probably experience fogged déjà vu, the latter may like what they get. Depending on which audience you fit into, you may want to think before you come to this Cabaret.