Sunday, December 17, 2017
Stage

Review: Strong ensemble serves up musical power at the heart of 'Cabaret'

TAMPA — The darkest long-running musical in history is back, promising another round of eternal messages about authoritarianism and hit songs. Roundabout Theatre Company, one of Broadway's nonprofits, celebrates its 50th anniversary with this touring production of Cabaret, reviving one of the theater's biggest and most influential hits.

If you were expecting a replay of one of the 1980s revivals or the 1972 film, the show at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts will be a pleasant surprise. This Cabaret, shaped when Roundabout opened its own revival in 1998, is every bit as foreboding as older productions, but it delivers an added edge to suit the times. The best thing about the show is Randy Harrison's performance as the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, a refuge for revelers and connoisseurs of artistic decadence under the lengthening shadow of the Third Reich.

Harrison manifests a wicked Emcee, subtly acknowledging the aura of repression growing by the day and also perpetuating it. His high-voltage sensuality, menace and humor paves the way for a relatively simple plot to unfold. Of the other major players, there are two takeaways to reconcile.

The first is that Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles nails the musical numbers by John Kander and Fred Ebb, which lie at the heart of the show and are largely responsible for its extended life. Goss, who has played the role on Broadway, is at her most expressive while singing, both in tone and interpretation. She also comes through at the biggest moments, such as the title song near the end.

The other half of that conundrum is that Goss is less effective in her spoken delivery of Sally, who seems halting and affected for reasons that are never entirely clear. Either she is doing a marvelous job portraying someone who is unconvincing or there is something missing.

A sense of missed opportunities deepens with Benjamin Eakeley's performance as Clifford Bradshaw, the American writer smitten by Sally. Eakeley for the most part comes off as more bland than amiable, and his repeated, shouted indignation at encroaching Naziism at a crucial point is entirely unbelievable. But he's a pleasant-looking fellow with a lovely tenor voice, which might explain why he was cast.

When it comes to individual performances, there is one other note of fulfillment, and that is Mary Gordon Murray's Fraulein Schneider, the rooming house owner who survives calamities at a personal price. And Murray is not the only one who hits every moment like a pro, but apart from the Emcee, she is the most luminous.

Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966 with Joel Grey as the Emcee. The show has undergone important tweaks since, notably in a 1993 revival on London's West End under director Sam Mendes, which gave Alan Cumming's Emcee a pansexual dimension, and the renowned 1998 revival at Roundabout Theatre's Studio 54 location (also starring Cumming), which won a Best Musical Tony Award and ran for six years. In the Roundabout version, co-directed by Mendes and Rob Marshall, Kit Kat players doubled as stage musicians.

A 16-piece Kit Kat Band plays on a loft level on the Morsani Hall set, one or another of them often slithering down spiral staircases to the stage. Hearing the musicians unobstructed by a pit heightens a sense of immediacy and spectacle.

Despite some weaknesses in the lead roles, this is a show delivered by the entire cast. It is more than the sum of its parts, and manages to color dozens of moments with dark emotional energy. The ending, punctuated by a Roundabout tweak to the Emcee's role, packs an emotional wallop.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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