Ravishing Revivals

Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming in the Roundabout revival of “Cabaret.” | JOAN MARCUS

Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming in the Roundabout revival of “Cabaret.” | JOAN MARCUS

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | The cliché is that time heals, but sometimes that healing involves changed perspective. For me, that’s the case with the re-revival of Roundabout’s “Cabaret,” now at Studio 54. When first mounted in 1998, this production left me emotionally cold, even if appreciative of the talent onstage. In the intervening years, I’ve changed and the world has changed, as well. Politics that are ever more poisonous, economic collapse, and growing evidence of income equality all inform our appreciation for Sam Mendes’ production about a world on the brink. The new staging has a chilling clarity and depth which either wasn’t there before or I simply didn’t perceive.

In the Kit Kat Club, a louche enclave in 1929 Berlin, the narrator asks that we leave our troubles outside even as he demonstrates how those troubles are accumulating both for the characters we come to know and for the wider culture. Mendes and co-director Rob Marshall steadily amp up the tale’s tension, making this one of the most engaging tragedies you’re likely to encounter.

At the center of the story is Sally Bowles, an English singer transplanted to Berlin in the hopes of making it — even though there’s never a moment of doubt that the Kit Kat Club is on the fringes of Berlin’ rollicking night scene or that Sally’s talent is third rate. She is a lost soul seeking a safe harbor, and when American Cliff Bradshaw shows up, she thinks she may have found it. But, the cautious, traditional life he offers lacks the thrill she’s finds in cocaine and sex. By the end, she is lost in a haze of drugs and denial. As brilliantly played by Michelle Williams, Sally is a glorious mess of bravado, fear, desperation, longing, and youthful obliviousness. Williams is a fearless performer who puts her remarkable stamp on this role and production, right down to her singing, which manages to take us deep into Sally’s psyche.

Three show hit Broadway and create a theatrical feast

Alan Cumming reprises his turn as the Emcee, the role that made him a star. His performance is darker and more pointed than I recall, and there is a subversive anger pulsing through it that offers gripping counterpoint to Williams’ Sally. Cumming remains the consummate entertainer, however, and the Emcee’s adorable creepiness is galvanizing down to the last shattering moments of the show.

The supporting cast is equally proficient. Linda Emond as Fräulein Schneider, the landlady of the boarding house where all the characters intersect, is the picture of stoic survival, and her songs “So What” and “What Would You Do?” are extraordinary. Danny Burstein as Herr Schultz, the Jew who loves Fräulein Schneider, is exceptional as a man who gets his heart caught in a changing world. Gayle Rankin as Fräulein Kost, the prostitute who entertains sailors to survive, is darkly comic. Bill Heck as Cliff seeks adventure like Sally but has the worldview she lacks, allowing him to save himself just in time.

The principals are supported by an outstanding ensemble and a terrific band that makes the world of this “Cabaret” irresistible.

Pat Shortt and Daniel Radcliffe in Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” | JOHAN PERSSON

Pat Shortt and Daniel Radcliffe in Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” | JOHAN PERSSON

No detail of small town life in the remote village of Innishmaan is too small for Johnnypateenmike, who spends his days spreading “news” about the town, whether it’s a wandering farm animal or word of a Hollywood film company looking for real Irish people to perform. The town thrives on a stew of gossip, envy, judgment, vitriol, and love that comes vibrantly alive in “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play now getting a splendid production on Broadway.

The plot is secondary to the characters, but it centers on what happens when Billy, the cripple of the title, dares to dream he can escape the town and go to Hollywood. He gets there, but stardom eludes him and he seeks to mend his broken life, even as he can’t mend his broken body.

The play is at once hilariously funny and achingly sad. The store in town where many of the scenes take place is run by two sisters, Eileen and Kate, who have an uncanny resemblance to my Irish great aunts for whom bickering and idiosyncrasy were the norm. In fact, what makes this play work is the detail McDonagh give his characters and the exploration of drama — either real or imagined — in the minutiae of these people’s lives.

Daniel Radcliffe gives a fine performance as the title character. Billy, called “Cripple Billy” by everyone, desperately wants to transcend the circumstances of his life. In fact, he’s the only one in town with the backbone to try. His failure to become a star is irrelevant because he emerges as a man who ultimately earns the respect of Innishmaan that had previously eluded him.

Despite Radcliffe’s stardom, this is a true ensemble performance, and all the actors are outstanding. Sarah Greene as Helen, Billy’s love interest and tormentor, is a standout, as are Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie as the sisters, Pat Shortt as Johnnypateenmike, and Pádric Delaney as Bobbybabby, Billy’s nemesis.

Michael Grandage’s clear-eyed, affectionate direction brings Inishmaan and the characters to life and makes this world both poignant and painful — kind of like life.

Joshua Henry, Sutton Foster, and Colin Donnell in Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s “Violet.” | JOAN MARCUS

Joshua Henry, Sutton Foster, and Colin Donnell in Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s “Violet.” | JOAN MARCUS

There is no better singing on Broadway right now than in the Roundabout revival of “Violet,” the musical by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley. Set in the mid-1960s, this story of a girl who was disfigured in an accident and travels halfway across the South by bus in hopes of being healed by a televangelist is small in scope but large in heart.

Tesori’s score is an infectious gospel, blues, rock, and country mix that never fails to raise the rafters and illuminate the characters. Leigh Silverman’s production began at “Encores,” and its simple staging underscores the wonderful music and consistently brilliant performances.

The character of Violet is deceptively complex. She is at once a credulous girl who believes a TV preacher can heal her and a savvy woman whose father has helped her prepare for the harshness of the world — in part, by making her proficient at poker. Hardboiled and naïve, she becomes an object of fascination — and desire — for the two soldiers she meets on the bus and their triangular relationship becomes the center of the plot. By the end, Violet has found the healing she craves, though it comes in an unexpected form.

Sutton Foster in the title role is magnificent. She embodies Violet with an unerring precision that illuminates the character’s depth and complexities, and our hearts go out to her for the misplaced belief and singularly focused determination she exhibits. Foster is at the top of her game vocally, as well, maturing beyond the roles in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and “Anything Goes” that made her a star.

Playing the soldiers Violet falls in with, Colin Donnell is great as the cavalier and sexually eager Monty, while Joshua Henry is spectacular as Flick, an African American smitten with Violet on a deeper level. Henry stopped the show at the performance I saw with his rousing number “Let It Sing.” Alexander Gemignani is equally impressive as Violet’s father, a smaller but no less pivotal role.

The terrific ensemble, indispensible in creating the world of the South half a century ago, conjures choral magic that will take your breath away. Music director Michael Rafter deserves particular credit here.

If you love a simple story beautifully told and appreciate wonderful music brilliantly performed, don’t miss this bus.

 

Studio 54 | 254 W. 54th St. | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m. | Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $47-$162 | roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300 | Two hrs., 30 min., with intermission

 

THE CRIPPLE OF INISHMAAN | Cort Theatre | 138 W. 48th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.Wed., Fri., Sat. at 8 p.m., Wed, Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $27-$142 | telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 15 min., with intermission

 

VIOLET | American Airlines Theatre | 227 W. 42nd St. | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m. | Wed. Sat. Sun. at 2 p.m. | $67-$152 | roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300 | One hr., 45 minutes, no intermission

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