LONDON — At first glance, it looks as if there’s a party happening at the Kit Kat Club, the refurbished London venue where a nerve-shredding revival of “Cabaret,” starring Eddie Redmayne, opened last weekend.
Entering a side door of what was once the Playhouse Theater, you snake your way along corridors not usually open to the public and into a labyrinthine demimonde of dancers and drinks: a recreation of a seedy, Weimar-era Berlin nightclub. The auditorium has lost 200 seats in its transformation into an immersive, plushly appointed space, complete with lamp-lit tables down front for a preshow meal. In the show’s hefty playbill, the brilliant designer Tom Scutt says he has tried to bring a “queer irreverence” to the venue, which rewards close inspection of its details, like a splash of gold here and an art-nouveau flourish there.
Yet the director, Rebecca Frecknall, is more interested in disturbing the audience than handing them a drink. Making a remarkable entry into musical theater after lauded productions of Chekhov and Tennessee Williams, Frecknall pulls us into a hedonistic milieu, only to send us out nearly three hours later reminded of life’s horrors.
That’s as it should be given this 1966 musical by John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics) and Joe Masteroff (book) about “the end of the world,” to cite a final observation from Cliff (Omari Douglas), an American writer in 1930s Germany who is alone among the show’s principals in sensing the danger of the Nazis’ rise. Frecknall’s main accomplice in darkening the mood is her Oscar and Tony-winning leading man, Redmayne, returning to the London stage for the first time in a decade. And there’s further assistance from the Irish actress-singer Jessie Buckley, an unusually ferocious Sally Bowles.
Redmayne’s Emcee brings his own distinctly shape-shifting, sinuous quality to a role that can be hard to refresh: Many still associate it with a pancake-faced Joel Grey, who originated the part onstage and won an Oscar in the 1972 Bob Fosse film. Limping or crouching his way about the circular stage, a twitchy Redmayne initially calls to mind a demented marionette, his mouth as misshapen as his psyche.
He first emerges in a burst of light, his body contorted during the startling opening number, “Willkommen,” a party hat clinging to the side of his tilted head. “Life is beautiful,” he says, but something about the gravelly voice and glazed smile suggest otherwise. Appearing bare-chested soon after in the manic number “Two Ladies,” Redmayne’s Emcee is a devotee of debauchery whose true character is revealed in the antisemitic finish to “If You Could See Her,” when a nasty slur comes as the song’s brutal kicker.
Redmayne’s lyric tenor lends itself well to “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” the melodic Nazi anthem that sounds sweet enough until you grasp the lyrics. The song prefigures a moral decline that reaches a nadir in the Emcee’s second-act solo, “I Don’t Care Much.” With that number, cut from the original production but reinstated for various revivals, the Emcee’s assimilation into the Third Reich is complete.
Frecknall shows that such transformations passed many onlookers by — or that they were reluctant to take action while there was still time. The affair between the landlady Fraulein Schneider (the superb Liza Sadovy, in richly expressive voice) and the Jewish grocer, Herr Schultz (a likable Elliot Levey), is especially telling on this front. Fraulein Schneider sings in the wrenching “What Would You Do?” that she is too old and tired to counter “the storm” she sees approaching; Herr Schultz, meanwhile, is convinced that German citizenship will save him. But when the Emcee raises a champagne flute to the couple, we hear the cacophonous glass-shattering of Kristallnacht.
Sally Bowles exists in a self-deluded class of her own: an English expat in Berlin who is heralded as “the toast of Mayfair,” but in Buckley’s take sometimes seems a scared and angry child. She sings “Maybe This Time” directly to Cliff, her lyrics about winning delivered quietly as if Sally were admitting to herself that her life has been a failure. And though she gives off the air of a thumb-sucking Shirley Temple when she first appears with “Don’t Tell Mama,” she roars the title number at the show’s climax full of fury and pain. “The party’s over,” Cliff says: The festivities have become a farewell, and a world is about to crash.
At the Kit Kat Club in London for an open-ended run; theplayhousetheatre.co.uk.