I love Kander and Ebb and of all their shows I love Cabaret the most. As a sensitive teenager in deepest darkest Shropshire I discovered the film and Liza Minnelli’s divinely decadent Sally Bowles which led to much pretentious flicking of Christopher Isherwood in the sixth form common room. Then came the discovery of the original London cast recording with Judi Dench proving that you can sell a song and have the x factor without being the best singer in the world (take note Gary “it’s a singing competition” Barlow). Rasping her way through the score, complete with all the songs excised for the movie, her sensuous growl cracking here and there but only adding to Sally’s mystique. If you find a long-deleted copy of the CD grab it with both hands. The only stage production I had seen prior to today was at the Donmar in the nineties which received universal acclaim from all but me. I found Alan Cumming far too self conscious as the Emcee and Jane Horrocks’s foghorn delivery as Sally an assault on the eardrums.
In 2012 we have an updated version of Rufus Norris’s 2006 West End revival with Pop Idol Will Young and ex-Eastender and failed Bionic Woman Michelle Ryan taking up the gauntlet and the ghosts of Judi and Liza.
I have always lumped Will Young in with the annoying school of pop stars, where Robbie Williams is head boy and Jessie J milk monitor, undeniably talented but far too smug for their own good. Here he is a revelation, the perfect mix of sleaze and menace with just a hint of warmth seducing us and enticing us to spend time with him and the Kit Kat club revue in 1930’s Berlin. Even his cameo as a border guard is startlingly good and provides a perfect counterpoint to his other larger than life character. His singing is, as is to be expected, top notch and his new first act closer of Tomorrow Belongs To Me, a Nazi puppeteer controlling the psyche of a nation, is chilling and has you wondering if he is a collaborator, the heart rending snow drenched tableau at the shows’ finale revealing his eventual fate.
The supporting cast, Matt Rawle as Cliff, a barely disguised portrayal of a young Christopher Isherwood; Sian Phillips as Fraulein Schneider, Sally & Cliff’s down at heel landlady; Linal Haft as Herr Schultz, her jewish suitor and Harriet Thorpe as Fraulein Kost, their sailor-pleasuring neighbour, are a delight. It is a total joy to hear the majority of the songs from the original score, especially Cliff’s yearning Why Should I Wake Up? and Fraulein Schneider’s funny yet aching Pineapple, although the glorious Don’t Tell Mama is truncated and reduced to a background performance.
Don’t Tell Mama should be one of Sally’s naughty shining lights. Supposedly detailing how and why she came to be singing in a tawdry German nightclub and the equally saucy exploits of her family. Sally, all bluster and green nail polish, uses sex as a tool to try to get what she wants, but is vulnerable and easily exploited by every man she meets. She is a multi-faceted character and is key to the show’s success. Michelle Ryan, making her West End debut, is way out of her depth. Sure she can sing like the talented girl at school who belts out a tune and is always picked to play Nancy in the Christmas production of Oliver, but any attempt at characterisation is reduced to annoying with the vaguest hint of petulance. Both of these should be somewhere in Sally’s mix of course, but they shouldn’t define her. We have to care about her and be interested in her journey, where has she come from and where is she going, or else what is the point of sitting through the show? I pity the excellent Matt Rawle trying to spar with and spark off Ryan’s mannequin-like Sally, dead behind the eyes sleepwalking her way through one of the finest musical theatre roles in history, talk about pissing in the wind.
The band, on-stage sometimes hidden and sometimes part of the action, are great, loud and brassy as they should be. Katrina Lindsay’s cheap looking set of angular chrome edged screens and mesh cages recalls Supersonic and Hot Gossip of the 1980’s rather than the Germany of the Weimar Republic in the 1930’s and is another disappointment.
I have never witnessed a production where the gulf between the two above-the-title stars was so wide. Cabaret stands or falls on its Emcee and Sally, this succeeds spectacularly with the former and fails miserably with the latter. Will Young is a terrific addition to the West End, I look forward to what I hope is a long and illustrious career in musical theatre, but Michelle Ryan would be best advised to check out regional productions of Snow White for this time next year if she wants avoid the inevitable return to Albert Square.
Booking until 19 January 2013, worth a punt on the £35 front row seats for a sensational Will Young - Cabaret