'Cabaret' review: Alan Cumming is still dangerous

Alan Cumming with the Kit Kat girls and Alan Cumming with the Kit Kat girls and boys in "Cabaret." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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REVIEW

"Wilkommen," sings Alan Cumming's sleazeball of an Emcee as he kicks off the return of the Roundabout Theatre's delectably dark and dirty 1998 revival of "Cabaret."

And we think, yes, welcome back. Cumming, who began his huge American career with this Tony-winning pansexual ghoul of a performance, seems older, seedier, more used up than he did back when Sam Mendes' you-are-there environmental staging of the 1966 Kander/Ebb masterwork was so new and dangerous and radical.

In other words, Cumming is better than ever -- wiser, more dissipated, even more deeply entertaining in the role he stunningly recreated from Joel Grey's iconic original. And that freshness is so infectious it spills over into a landmark production that closed in 2004 but feels, with one uneasy exception, as confident -- and about as dangerous -- as if it has been running ever since.

The exception, alas, is Michelle Williams, making her Broadway and musical debut as Sally Bowles. As Natasha Richardson proved in this staging 16 years ago, Sally need not be anything like the showstopping singer and dancer portrayed by Liza Minnelli in the movie. In fact, Sally just needs to be decent enough to keep her gig in a second-rate club in anything-goes 1929 Berlin.

But she has to have flair and be magnetic enough to sell herself as a good-time girl. Williams, a splendid movie actor who pulled off being Marilyn Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn," does not seem to be having a good time. Her Sally is timid, bland and covered up in costumes that make her seem almost chaste. Williams rallies for her final "Cabaret," sung quietly at a pole microphone, but we don't get a hint that Sally understands the Nazi horror she has just accepted.

Bill Heck has a compelling open-boundary American curiosity as Clifford Bradshaw, the would-be novelist, the character inspired by Christopher Isherwood's Berlin stories. Without changing the basics of Joe Masteroff's book, Mendes and co-director Rob Marshall made it clear that Clifford is gay, or at least bisexual. They also restored to the magnificent score some songs by lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander considered too controversial for the original.

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Other highlights include Linda Emond as the landlady who settles for being a "good" German and Danny Burstein as her Jewish suitor. The "girls" and "boys" of the Kit Kat Club have heroin-chic eye sockets and costumes (by William Ivy Long) that enjoy the seductiveness of vulgarity. Except for Cumming, the production feels less assaulting today than it did before immersive plays became everyday fare. Yet, this remains a riveting production of a great musical.

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WHAT "Cabaret"

WHERE Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St.

INFO $47-$162; 212-719- 1300; roundabouttheatre.org

@Newsday

BOTTOM LINE Cumming stunning, Williams timid, in confident return of radical revival

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