Monday, May 6, 2024

Broadway Reviews: Three Recent Tony-Nominated Musicals Deal With the Hot Button Topics of Antisemitism (“Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club”), Wealth Disparity (“The Outsiders”) and Women’s Rights (“Suffs”)

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club (c) Marc Brenner

Theater: Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club 
On Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre 

I have a unique perspective on the John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff popular musical Cabaret: I had never seen the show. Yes, I saw the 1972 Oscar-winning Best Picture film directed by Bob Fosse, though not in this century, but I have never seen the show on stage, including the last two Broadway revivals of the same Roundabout production in 1998 (with Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson) and 2014 (with Cumming and Michelle Williams), not because I consciously avoided it, but because it was a hard and expensive ticket to acquire (contributed by the many starry replacements during the runs including Neil Patrick Harris, Raul Esparza, Molly Ringwald and Emma Stone). So, while I sat in the reconfigured August Wilson Theatre, now transformed into the Kit Kat Club of 1929 Berlin (including a preshow pub crawl starting at a back-alley entrance with a complimentary schnapps shot), it didn’t feel as revolutionary (or sacrilegious, depending on who you talked to) as musical theater fans contend. It did feel bold, especially when Eddie Redmayne (reprising his Olivier-winning performance from the West End) as the Emcee, enters with a party hat sitting askew on his head to indicate that the show starts on New Year’s Eve. But the Emcee’s wardrobe gets more nightmarish and foreboding as the show proceeds (including a look that’s one balloon short of Pennywise) indicating to the audience that all this artistic decadence may be coming to an end. 

Cabaret at Kit Kat Club (c) Marc Franklin

The Emcee, however, is not the focus of Cabaret – he’s more a Brechtian chrous between scenes. The story actually revolves around American ex-pat Cliff Bradshaw (Ato Blankson-Wood), a writer loosely based on Christopher Isherwood (whose writings the show is based on) and his days in Berlin having an affair with Sally Bowles (Gayle Rankin), the Kit Kat Club headliner (so says she) in the boarding house of Fräulein Schneider (Bebe Neuwirth). Fräulein Schneider is also having a parallel romance with Herr Schultz (Steven Skybell), whose Jewish background may cause some problems later in the story. Both relationships are told episodically with the wonderful and iconic Kurt Weill-styled songs, like "Willkommen," “Money” and the title song slyly commenting on the action. I found all this fascinating and engaging, even in full understanding that director Rebecca Frecknall has a much filthier take on the material. Her approach has nowhere to go once things go south with the rise of the Nazi party, but there’s a boldness to a lot of the scenes that is quite theatrically intriguing and immersive (the show is effectively staged in the round). Some may decry the unrelenting pessimism of this production, but we are talking about the rise of Nazi Germany. 

The Outsiders (c) Matthew Murphy

Theater: The Outsiders 
On Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre 

One of the biggest surprises of the Broadway season has to be the musical adaptation of The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton’s 1967 YA novel about the uneasy tension between the teens of the haves (the “Socs” as in Socials) and the have-nots (the Greasers) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And while the obvious comparison is to West Side Story (especially during the rumble scenes, expertly choreographed by Rick and Jeff Kuperman), the class division here is the real focus. Ponyboy Curtis (Brody Grant) is an orphan teen being raised by his two older brothers (Jason Schmidt and Brent Comer), and while all he wants is to see the latest movies, the cinema is on the rich side of town, and he risks being jumped by a gang of Socs, led by Bob (Kevin William Paul). Things come to a head when Bob’s girlfriend Cherry (Emma Pittman) starts a friendship with the sensitive Ponyboy (he wants to be a writer) and faster than you can say Tybalt and Mercutio, Ponyboy and his best friend Johnny (Sky Lakota-Lynch) are suddenly on the run. There is a genuine heartfelt quality to the show, thanks mostly to the heart on its sleeve book by Adam Rapp and Justin Levine, and the songs by Jamestown Revival’s Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance with Levine. The cast of mostly newcomers is a breath of fresh air, especially Grant and Lakota-Lynch as the BFFs whose strong bond is the real love story. It is all brilliantly directed by Danya Taymour (Pass Over), whose energetic staging keeps the audience invested, making a familiar tale seem fresh. After a host of musicals aimed at or about young adult girls (& Juliet, Mean Girls, Jagged Little Pill), it’s sort of charming to have the boys of The Outsiders take center stage. And considering that two of the show’s producers are Angelina Jolie and her daughter Vivienne, and the fresh-faced cast is easy on the eyes, the female fan base for the show is already sizable as well. 

Suffs (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Suffs 
On Broadway at the Music Box Theatre 

After a well-regarded but slightly underwhelming production at the Public Theater, the retooled musical Suffs has finally made it to Broadway. Writer and actress Shaina Taub and director Leigh Silverman have vastly improved the show about the US women suffragist movement in the 1910’s by not only making this historical drama edutainment but also providing us with engaging drama between the old and new guards of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the Black Americans facing racism from members of the southern states. These conflicts are personified in NAWSA President Carrie Cott (Jenn Colella) and NAACP activist Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James), respectively. Cott’s “Let Mother Vote” and Well’s “Wait My Turn” solo songs give the beginning of the first act its heft. These conflicts are seen through the eyes of Suffs’ main character, Alice Paul (Taub), the suffragist who experienced the movement in England and made it her life’s work to get it passed in the US. The major conflict of the musical revolves around the political maneuverings of President Woodrow Wilson (Grace McLean), who for years humored NAWSA while not really taking any action until Paul and other members are thrown in jail after a protest in front of the White House. That moment is a crackerjack of an opening for Act Two, but the subsequent jail time and hunger strike take up too much real estate that could have been given to other historical moments of the movements. The all-female cast of different backgrounds, gender fluidities and physical abilities is the main draw and there are so many superlative supporting performances that stand out, but particular attention must be given to Colella, James, Emily Skinner (as socialite Alva Belmont) and Hannah Cruz (as activist Inez Milholland who is best known for riding a horse at the start of the Women’s March in 1913). There has been an unfair comparison between Suffs and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton with only their American history premise and the Public Theater-to-Broadway transfer being similar. But what is most exciting is the participation of Hillary Clinton and Malala Yousafzai as producers, and both creating a buzz for this inspiring show. 

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