Review: Roundabout Theatre Company's Revived CABARET Tour Returns to OC's Segerstrom Center

Michael L. Quintos

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

While watching the classic musical CABARET, the 1966 Tony Award winner that features incredible songs from composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb and a book by Joe Masteroff, one can't help but still see an eerie relevance of its themes 50 years after its debut. 

And although the events depicted in the show—well, at least the ones that are hovering like an ominous storm cloud above the characters—now feel so far away in the somewhat distant past, it's certainly hard to ignore that some of the struggles (and foreboding dangers) presented in this searing, intense show do involve, shockingly enough, issues that are still very much in our peripheral reality today… particularly in such a topsy-turvy geopolitical environment of 2016. 

These contemporary parallels are perhaps the main reason why this profoundly significant musical still connects and resonates with today's audiences—well, of course, aside from being just a supremely entertaining show overall, filled with memorable songs, intriguing personalities, and an engaging, thought-provoking storyline that packs more of a wallop on repeat viewings. Though many of us likely come for its sexy, unabashed bawdiness and fun, cheeky musical numbers, CABARET, at its deepest core, is a brilliantly-executed musicalized commentary on the shamefulness of prejudice and the dangers of being complacent to the oncoming march of seemingly unstoppable terror. 

Yes, CABARET is indeed still winningly impressive and powerfully poignant to experience on stage after all these years—particularly the show's Tony Award-winning, Donmar Warehouse-inspired 1998 revival co-directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, which still stands, arguably, as the show's definitive stage iteration (so much so that it went on to become the third longest-running musical revival in Broadway history). 

That same vibrant Roundabout Theatre Company production rightly serves as the basis for the newer 2014 revival that was reignited and revitalized for a pre-set (then extended) return engagement on Broadway, which is now in the midst of a brand new North American national tour. After several weeks at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, the latest revival of the hit musical has now traveled its way south to Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa where it performs through August 21.

And, gosh, this top-notch production—helmed by BT McNicholl and featuring Marshall's recreated choreography by Cynthia Onrubia—is just truly exceptional, mostly by sticking to what worked so well with the Mendes/Marshall blueprint. Whether you're a fan of that amazing '98 revival or, better still, the iconic 1972 film adaptation that awarded its star Liza Minnelli a much-deserved Best Actress Oscar, this brazenly confident new CABARET—a rousing combo-platter of the best elements of the show through its entire history—will surely entertain and, yes, even move you. 

For the uninitiated, CABARET is based on Christopher Isherwood's true-life experiences that eventually became his semi-autobiographical 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, which was then later adapted into the play I Am A Camera in 1951 by John Van Druten. 

Just like the source material and Van Druten's play, the riveting musical version follows a rather volatile year in the life of visiting American author Clifford Bradshaw (the excellent Benjamin Eakeley), who arrives in Berlin, Germany in 1929—just at the dawn of the Third Reich's ascent to ultimate power. Excited yet fearful of this adventure, the handsome, highly-educated Cliff hopes his new environment would help inspire his next novel. 

And, boy, does it ever.

Serving as the story's central hub of activity is the Kit Kat Klub, a nefarious local cabaret joint known for its wild debauchery, fluid sexuality, and carefree attitude, which is a much livelier, less serious contrast to the tragedies that lay ahead for Germany and the onslaught of Nazi rule outside its doors. The face of the club—and our story's unofficial narrator and chief instigator—is the libidinous Emcee (a splendidly sassy Randy Harrison) who entertains patrons with innuendo-laden witticisms and rambunctious songs... all laced with overt sexual overtones, spellbinding choreography, and not-so-subtle political and social commentary.

"In here, life is beautiful!" he bellows proudly while surrounded by the club's unbelievably sexy staff of dancers, waiters, and on-stage musicians. "Leave your troubles outside!" 

Well, of course, we all know quite well that such a task is easier said than done. The looming danger is all around and is slowly chipping away even at the joyous sanctuary provided by the Kit Kat Klub. Troubles—particularly powerful unstoppable ones—are hard to keep out.

Witnessing all this first-hand with keenly observant eyes is Berlin newbie Cliff. Right away, he meets a super-friendly German citizen named Ernst Ludwig (Patrick Vaill) who offers the Yank not only suggestions for earning a sustainable income while in the city, but also a solid lead on possible lodging accommodations at a boarding house run by the kind yet stern Fräulein Schneider (the stirring Shannon Cochran), an independent, unmarried woman contentedly settling into her advanced age and social position. Cliff eventually convinces her to give him a discounted rental.
As Cliff begins exploring his new city, the rather straight-laced young man discovers the very raunchy Kit Kat Klub, where he is first introduced to (and is immediately infatuated with) British-bred Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss), the club's intriguing resident chanteuse. When the club's owner Max (Tommy McDowell) becomes jealous of this mutual flirtation, Sally is fired and is left homeless. To Cliff's surprise, Sally shows up the following day at the boarding house—and eventually talks Cliff into taking her in temporarily.

Months pass and the two continue to co-habitate... and have actually even fallen in love with each other, even though Cliff possesses certain proclivities he'd rather suppress. But with now two mouths to feed (and possibly a third on the way) under his roof, Cliff resorts to accepting additional odd "easy money" jobs from his "pal" Ernst—a man who now proudly wears a Nazi arm band to show his allegiance to Germany's ruling body wherever he goes. Cliff would stop at nothing to try to keep Sally safe.

Meanwhile, across the hall of the boarding house, another unlikely pairing is also ever-so-slowly blossoming, this time between landlady Fräulein Schneider and one of her tenants, the adorably sweet Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson), a much older man who owns and operates a local fruit shop. Herr Schultz tries his best to win over Fräulein Schneider, and she eventually succumbs to his romantic overtures after he defends her reputation against accusations of impropriety from revenge-seeking tenant Fräulein Kost (Alison Ewing). But alas, their courtship, of course, is increasingly threatened by the fact that Herr Schultz is Jewish—a population that is not exactly looked upon too kindly by the Nazis.

And as Germany becomes more and more engulfed in the ways of the Third Reich (culminating in a shudder-inducing reprise of the Nazi-like anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me") many of our characters are slowly becoming directly affected by the troubled, scary times ahead. There's no use hiding behind the Kit Kat Klub anymore.

Bold, brash, and, sometimes even beautifully poetic, Roundabout Theatre Company's superb revival of CABARET is that rare accomplished hybrid of impressive entertainment and socially conscious, politically charged art piece, that at times can be both blissfully unapologetic and tragically melancholy. And in this updated, refreshed iteration, the show is even more confident, exposed, and suggestive than it has ever been—and also feels much more at home with the progressive shift in social attitudes within today's audiences.

Well, damn... No wonder. The production is slick, sexy and absolutely sensational. From its giddily bawdy opening to its haunting, gut-punch ending that really doesn't sugar-coat things, RTC's definitive version of CABARET remains the must-see iteration that erases all others.

Don't let the show's seemingly upbeat, tongue-in-cheek Kander and Ebb musical numbers fool you—this show isn't afraid to explore darker themes underneath its sexy, titillating surfaces. Beauty, artifice and ugliness co-mingle with engaging ease. 

Not surprisingly, this newer stage iteration is also the sum of all the properties' best parts, including the continued inclusion of songs written specifically for the popular film adaptation ("Maybe This Time" and "Money" are integrated so well here, you'll forget they were never part of the original Broadway production). Robert Brill's minimalist sets and the atmospheric lighting schemes devised by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari suggest a Germany in eerie transitional flux, while William Ivey Long's period-perfect costumes sartorially convey each character's mood, economic status, and, even, level of sanity.

And let's not forget how incredible the on-stage band looks and sounds playing up on a raised platform high above the action below—made up of the show's very own spectacular acting ensemble, under the direction of musical director/accompanist Robert Cookman! The concept of having a show's actors do double duty playing musical instruments as the accompaniment to a musical theater piece is, of course, nothing new nowadays. But here, the trick is remarkably seamless and natural to the ebb and flow of the staging. Not once does it ever feel like a gimmick. 

The assembled cast for the tour, without question, definitely helps sell the production. 

The well-cast Harrison—all grown up from his days playing teen hottie Justin in Showtime's "Queer As Folk"—slinks into his impressive CABARET performance armed with saucy confidence and witty charm as the rousing Emcee. And, woah, the guy's got some great singing pipes, too! I especially loved his seemingly improvised crack at the start of Act II directed towards audience members seated in the upper echelons of the massively huge Segerstrom Hall during the show's well-attended opening night performance in Costa Mesa. 

"Hello poor people!" he jokingly shouted up to audience members seated far up in the top balcony sections. "I am actually one of you! If you come see us again, get [a seat] down here [in orchestra] because you're really missing a lot of details!" Ha!

As the smart yet vulnerable Cliff, Eakeley provides a first-rate job being, in a sense, the audience's proxy into this ever-changing German landscape. Through his eyes and ears, we experience vicariously through him the wonders of lust and the agony of impending danger. His voice is also quite exquisite. Vaill as Ernst accomplishes a sterling job making you shudder as the show's direct character connection to the looming German threat.

Goss, meanwhile, tasked with one of the most iconic roles in musical theater history, makes for an admirably posh drama queen Sally Bowles. While it was at times frustratingly difficult to hear and comprehend her over-affected line readings, she easily redeems herself with her energetic dancing and gorgeous singing prowess, particularly in her alluring takes on "Maybe This Time" and the 11 o'clock title song. She certainly has the look and temperament of what many of us picture Sally Bowles to be, but there are times when she accidentally disappears amongst her fellow Kit Kat Club ladies, too.

But, truly, the heart and endearing soul of the musical—at least for me in this iteration—remains the ultimately doomed pairing of Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, played brilliantly and with palpable emotional resonance by Cochran and Nelson, respectively. At first glance, it's a cute-sy courtship between a couple of supporting characters. But when the bigger picture begins to penetrate the fray, we are left to witness utter, inescapable heartbreak that elevate the characters front and center. Both riveting actors convey this tug of war so magnificently, with the added bonus of hearing their journey play out musically (Cochran singing "What Would You Do?" really tugs at the heart). 

Whether this is your first or umpteenth time seeing the musical CABARET, this Roundabout Theatre Company revival certainly warrants your repeat visits. With its energetic musical numbers, brash confidence, and its absorbing storyline, it's a classic show deserving of multiple encores.

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

Photos from the National Tour of Roundabout Theatre Company's production of CABARET by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Performances of the National Tour of Roundabout Theatre Company's new production of CABARET at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, August 21, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit