‘Cabaret’ Review: Eddie Redmayne and Gayle Rankin Lead High-Style Revival That Cuts to the Bone

When Eddie Redmayne’s slithering Emcee assures the audience at “Cabaret” that “here, life is beautiful,” he’s telling a half-truth. The August Wilson Theater, done up like the Kit Kat Club for a bracing, high-style, Broadway revival that opened there Sunday, has indeed been transformed into a house of pleasure. Entering through an alley and into fancified, jam-packed lobby bars feels like discovering a speakeasy inside a nightclub.

The production is a hot-ticket escape from a city where police are breaking up student protests and a former head of state is on trial for porn-star bribery. Inside the theater, the denizens of Weimar Germany writhing around this storied den are likewise at least temporarily inured from the political perils pressing on its doors. But in director Rebecca Frecknall’s ravishing and mercilessly introspective production of the 1966 musical by Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), no one is safe from the turmoil rattling their psyches.

More from Variety

That twisted inner world is beautifully realized in a shadowy mélange of fringe and ruffles by the designer Tom Scutt, whose bawdy, under-the-big-top scenic and costume design is a feat of textures and deep, muted colors. Seating on either side of a circular center platform, skirted by VIP tables, lends the show an immersive feel, aided by Isabella Byrd’s sharp, captivating lighting. Chic, circus-clown makeup (by Guy Common) shrouding the eyes of Redmayne and the limber ensemble suggests a sinister air of delirium as the principal players are introduced.

Already near the end of her rope, Gayle Rankin’s coarse, determined Sally Bowles tries desperately to keep from spinning out before coming completely and furiously unraveled (the actor’s eviscerating performance of the title song is destined to become the stuff of you-had-to-see-her lore). Stripped of the delusions often associated with the expendable headliner, the Sally of Frecknall’s staging, which transfers here from London’s West End, is a raw, trembling realist only thinly disguised as a romantic.

When Sally falls in step with Cliff (Ato Blankson-Wood) — who is more clearly figured as queer, in the spirit of the source material by Christopher Isherwood — their devotion appropriately seems born from circumstance. The reticence and reserve of Blankson-Wood’s Cliff appears at first like a byproduct of keeping a part of himself secret. It’s a probing take on the text that falters slightly in the second act, when an affair between them — even one born from their own self-deception — isn’t easy to buy.

The tender romance between Bebe Neuwirth’s elegant and maternal Fraulein Schneider and the moony-eyed fruit seller Herr Schultz (Stephen Skybell) spins a sweet and aching emotional thread. Neuwirth’s shattering performance of “What Would You Do?” shows an indomitable woman piecing herself back together one trembling note at a time.

All that stripped-down humanity onstage — from the entrails of broken lovers to the dancers’ carnal gyrations (choreography is by Julia Cheng) — make Redmayne’s Emcee a jarring exception. An otherworldly salamander of a narrator, he hunches over, Gollum-like, gnawing on every syllable as if it were his last meal. It’s a fiercely committed performance, but a mannered one, too. For the Emcee to exist as a creature apart makes narrative sense, but Redmayne’s remoteness drains some of the force from what is otherwise a grounded, gut-punching take on a disturbingly timely story.

Of course, “Cabaret” is partly a warning about the excess and social blindness represented by pricey tickets and a sexy night out as the world burns. But it’s also a reminder to enjoy every last minute while you can.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.