National tour of 'Cabaret' retains its power to unsettle, entertain

You might think that the shock and awe of the Roundabout Theatre Company's Tony Award-winning 1998 Broadway revival of “Cabaret” would be muted nearly two decades later. But the national tour of “Cabaret” still elicited loud gasps from the opening-night audience at Chicago's re-christened The PrivateBank Theatre (formerly the Bank of America Theatre).

“Cabaret” feels surprisingly timely too, especially in the midst of America's presidential primaries and looming questions about the political direction of the country. Similar concerns are brought up by a few of the characters in Act II, which also prodded audible grumblings and whoops from the audience.

Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss) sings "Maybe This Time" in the national tour of "Cabaret." The Tony Award-winning Roundabout Theatre Company Broadway revival is at the re-christened The PrivateBank Theatre (formerly the Bank of America Theatre) in Chicago through Sunday, Feb. 21. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

That “Cabaret” continues to entertain as much as it provokes should come as no surprise. This 1966 musical is notorious for pushing theatrical boundaries.

Joe Masteroff's oft-revised script inspired by Christopher Isherwood's “Berlin Stories” is unsettling, not only because it touches on the rise of the Nazi party in 1930s Germany, but also in its off-kilter structure. John Kander and Fred Ebb's memorable songs not only advance the plot of two tragic love affairs, but they also comment on the action via a creepy Master of Ceremonies or “Emcee” who leads racy cabaret numbers at the seedy Kit Kat Klub.

Boundaries were pushed even further in the Roundabout's “Cabaret” revival, originally co-directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall (they would respectively go on to direct the Academy Award-winning films “American Beauty” and “Chicago”). The hedonism of Weimar Republic Berlin was amped with much more overt sexuality and apparent drug use while the color palate of the production was drastically drained. The revival's shocking conclusion also laid bare the likely horrific fates that awaited the characters who stayed behind in Germany.

Roundabout's “Cabaret” was so influential that subsequent productions are frequently judged against it. So to see it back on the boards serves as a potent reminder of the revival's power and lasting influence.

Members of the new touring cast overseen by director BT McNicholl all slot perfectly into the re-created production - particularly since so many of the ensemble members have to double as the show's orchestra.

The Emcee (Randy Harrison), center, performs with the ensemble of the Kit Kat Klub in the opening number "Willkommen" in the national tour of "Cabaret" playing in Chicago. Courtesy of Joan Marcus

Headlining is Randy Harrison of “Queer as Folk” fame as the lascivious Emcee, and he adroitly embodies all the fleshy allure and scary menace needed for this omnipresent figure.

Rather than go with a celebrity to play British cabaret singer Sally Bowles, the tour's producers opted for the experienced Andrea Goss, who understudied Michelle Williams, Emma Stone and Sienna Miller in the 2014 Broadway revival. Petite with huge Kewpie-doll eyes and an impeccable accent, Goss simultaneously gets across the semi-talented Sally's fiery drive to become a star while also showing her emotional desperation and fragility.

Goss more than holds her own opposite Lee Aaron Rosen as the aspiring American writer Cliff Bradshaw. Rosen gets across Cliff's upstanding nature, while also revealing his character's pent-up anger over his conflicted sexuality.

Fraulein Schneider (Chicago actress Shannon Cochran) receives a gift of a pineapple from the fruit merchant Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson) in the national tour of "Cabaret." Courtesy of Joan Marcus

Also doing marvelous work are Shannon Cochran as the seen-it-all landlady Fraulein Schneider and Mark Nelson as the amiable Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schultz. The two are touching as their later-life romance initially blossoms over a gift of a pineapple.

In addition, there's strong comic relief from Alison Ewing as the prostitute Fraulein Kost and Ned Noyes as the ever-eager Ernst Ludwig - that is until they are revealed to be part of something far more sinister.

With its mix of the salacious and the serious, “Cabaret's” reputation as a groundbreaking musical is solid. The same can be said for this Roundabout revival, which still has the ability to move theatergoers - and make them gasp.


★ ★ ★ ★

Location: The PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000,

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (also Feb. 14), 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (also Feb. 17); through Sunday, Feb. 21

Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes with intermission

Tickets: $22-$95

Parking: Area pay garages

Rating: For mature audiences; includes strong sexual content and drug use

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