Kander and Ebb’s 1966 musical Cabaret has seen numerous revivals around the world over the last fifty years, due to the timeless relevance and importance of its messages. Set around a seedy nightclub in 1930s Berlin, as the Nazi party began to take power, its stories of sexual liberation and interfaith relationships seem (sadly) as pertinent today as ever. Considering our current global political climate, you’d think this new Australian production would be perfectly primed to reflect concerns in our society and hit a few nerves at the same time. Unfortunately, this unperceptively directed version seems blind to the possibility.

Having been first staged at Sydney’s charming home to small-scale musicals, the Hayes Theatre, and directed by Nick Christo, this Melbourne staging is directed by Gale Edwards. Perhaps the lack of consistency in direction between the two is the cause for the misbegotten adaptation, having not seen both variations though I cannot say for sure. What is certain is that this classic of musical theatre isn’t done full justice here.

On paper, so much about the production should be perfect. Paul Capsis would seem ideal casting as the nightclub Master of Ceremonies, Emcee. Certainly he delivers a perfectly sound performance of the role, hitting all the right notes, but under Edwards’ direction, not for a moment does he seem in absolute command of the audience – surely an essential element of the character. The charming old Athenaeum theatre becomes the Kit Kat Klub seamlessly, with the first several rows of the stalls removed for cabaret-style seating, allowing a flow to the four (mostly empty) tables placed on the stage. Yet for some reason Capsis seems magnetically drawn to the pro-arch throughout, and subsequently has to pitch his performance out coquettishly from a distance, rather than with any form of authority or dominion.

Cabaret Paul Capsis

Likewise Chelsea Gibb, in a return to the style of her breakthrough role (Roxie Hart in Chicago, another Kander and Ebb hit), is a great choice for the racy and flirtatious British singer Sally Bowles. Yet almost inexplicably, Sally fades into the background here perhaps due to the unusual focus put on other characters around her. Certainly, the object of her affections, American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Jason Kos) comes across as a far more significant character than he usually does in most productions. That does make good sense though as Christopher Isherwood’s semiautobiographical book – Goodbye to Berlin – is the source material for Cabaret and the character of Cliff is the representation of Isherwood in the story. It is very refreshing to see Cliff played this way and Kos excels in the role, giving an exciting interpretation of the often unused number ‘Don’t Go’ from the 1987 Broadway revival.

Cabaret Chelsea Gibb

Kos has been directed to play Cliff more gay than bisexual or bi-curious giving him a sort of independence that somewhat undermines Sally’s boisterous takeover of his life and living quarters. It’s an interesting take, but ultimately probably doesn’t serve the character of Sally as well. One of the key elements of Cabaret is usually the sexual ambiguity or fluidity of the characters, but in this production, it seems the directors have already decided for the characters what team they each play for and it completely defuses the illicit sexual tension. Capsis’ Emcee is styled and played mostly as a drag queen, so numbers like ‘Two Ladies’ and ‘If You Could See Her’ seem like play-acting rather than giving the intended societal comment.

Despite the odd direction, the small cast is full of gems creating a jewellery box of performances, none less than Debora Krizak as Fraulein Kost, a fellow resident of the boarding house where Cliff and Sally live. Fraulein Kost ‘entertains’ gentlemen callers on a regular basis and Krizak characterises the sleazy underbelly of Berlin with deliciously devilish glee. It is hard to know if, in this production, Kost also works in the club with Sally, as all the cast double as Kit Kat Club girls from time to time and it does murky the waters a bit. Krizak is so dazzlingly good that whenever she’s a part of that nightclub ensemble it’s hard to see anyone else past her performance.

The elderly owner of the boarding house, Fraulein Schneider, is given a charming rendition of a woman resigned to her life by Kate Fitzpatrick. While her vocals are at times woolly, her characterisation is always pitched at the right level. As her unexpected beau, Herr Schultz, John O’May gives a thoroughly charming portrayal. Michael Cormick is almost wasted as Nazi collaborator Ernst Ludwig, but through the strength of his portrayal manages to claw back some meaning that is lost in the naïve revisions to the original intent of the script. Examples of such missteps are the complete lack of context or explanation for the introduction of haunting number ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ and the heavy-handed interpretation of ‘If You Could See Her’ by putting actual Jew, Herr Schultz in the figurative Jew’s gorilla suit.

At least, these numbers are given solid backing by the Musical Director, Conductor and Pianist Lindsay Partridge and his swinging six member Kit Kat Klub band. Likewise, Lighting Design by Rob Sowinski is moody and lush, especially when combined with the innumerable incandescent bulbs that festoon the set. The tricky job of creating a set design to fit two very different stages went to James Browne and the mouldering glamour he has achieved is marvellously evocative of the seedy side of Berlin. Doing double duty on costumes, Browne has devised creations that sit somewhere between authentic and artistic, with too many anachronistic elements to be truly accurate, but nevertheless, they are mostly very appealing.

Cabaret one

Choreography by Kelley Abbey shows her preeminent skill in creating eye-catching formations and in honouring the choreographers that have come before her. She’s given a tiny ensemble to work with though, and as already mentioned, the entire cast have to help fill out the numbers of the Kit Kat Klub girls, leaving them performing to empty onstage tables. Surely, this newly directed Melbourne season could have stretched to three or four more ensemble members to make the club feel alive and aid in filling out other group scenes and numbers.

Sound Design by Nick Walker and Andrew Worboys is very loud, which might explain why so many microphones were knocking and tapping on opening night, but the complete mishandling of the issue by the sound desk is inexcusable in a production that’s charging up to $120 for a premium ticket. Turning off misbehaving microphones altogether would have to be preferable to having the leading lady ordered off stage by the director for a mic fix mid-number! Nevertheless Gibb showed supreme professionalism and a ‘show must go on’ attitude in returning to the stage, powering through continued mic issues and earned a standing ovation from many for her eleven o’clock number, title-tune ‘Cabaret’.

Ultimately, great performances and pleasing designs are undermined by confused direction. If it weren’t for the fact that the messages and meaning behind Cabaret are so chilling and important, then the indifferent feeling one is left with at the end of this showing might have been okay.