Sally Bowles, the heroine of Cabaret, paints her fingernails bright green to shock people. The Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Cabaret, to give just one example, ends its first act with a man mooning the audience, revealing a swastika painted on his right buttock, which amounts to more or less the same thing as the green fingernails. Sally, remember, is ultimately a sad, lost remnant of a decadent era. That’s about the best that this ill-conceived, grossly misguided grotesquery of a musical can hope for.

To begin, let me tell you that the original Cabaret, and the slightly modified 1987 revival, are favorites of mine. They told a story of a giddy world lulled into evil: Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies was the living embodiment of a theme for which Boris Aronson’s arresting, oversized mirror, which placed the audience smack in the middle of the gaudy depravity of the Kit Kat Club, was the perfect visual metaphor. This Cabaret was about something: a tired old German landlady and her Jewish suitor, torn asunder by the Nazis; an aimless drifter-cum-novelist hero, at last finding something to believe in, or at least to fight against; and, memorably, Sally Bowles, the eternal naif/sophisticate, deciding that life is a cabaret just as her world is about to come crashing down all around her.

The new Cabaret, directed by Sam Mendes and featuring a radically altered book and score (presumably with the blessing of the show’s authors, Joe Masteroff, John Kander, and Fred Ebb), is about nothing. It starts with the Cabaret Girls (and–in the first of a long string of pointless “enhancements”–the Cabaret Boys), milling about on the stage of the refurbished Club Expo, now called the Kit Kat Klub, lending verisimilitude but little else, essentially stopping the show in its tracks before it even starts. The Emcee, played with gleeful smirkiness by Alan Cumming, enters and sings the show’s wonderful opening number “Wilkommen”: all over-the-top decadence, his performance already has nowhere to go. The costumes, by the talented William Ivey Long, look–literally–like hand-me-downs from Chicago. The score–brilliant, jazzy, Kurt Weill-ishly evocative of time and place–is performed by a band instead of an orchestra: there’s something like three strings backed by a handful of brass and woodwinds, and everything sounds terrible. Eventually Natasha Richardson shows up as Sally, and although she looks the part, all she ever seems to be is bored. The subplot involving the landlady and the Jewish fruit merchant is played for laughs, mostly; nothing in this production is allowed to be sincere.

I take it back; this show isn’t about nothing: it’s about Alan Cumming. As the puckishly lovable Emcee, he seems to pop up just about everywhere: in the Stage Right Box during several numbers, descending from the rafters to hold the pineapple in the song “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” flashing his afore-mentioned derriere in the first act finale, even collecting hero Cliff Bradshaw’s train ticket in the show’s penultimate scene. Here, by the way, is where the show manages to sink to its lowest depth. (This is a tall order, following a whole host of smuttily-staged numbers, including one that features the Emcee and a man and a woman simulating a variety of unusual sex acts behind a scrim.) I’m going to break my usual rule and tell you how this show ends because it’s so grossly wrong: the cabaret set disappears, revealing the entire company dressed in concentration camp uniforms, apparently on their way to the gas chambers. Then the Emcee takes off his coat. He is in uniform, too, with a pink triangle (for homosexuality) and a yellow star (for being Jewish) sewn on. How this living symbol of the banal, depraved wickedness of Nazism suddenly winds up as poster child for its victims is, well, beyond comprehension. In fact, it’s deplorable.

I was shocked by what I saw, but not I think in the way Mr. Mendes and company intended. What shocked me was how a thoughtful, relevant work could be so coarsened, so cheapened, so vulgarized, so bastardized, so robbed of meaning or value. Even more surprising to me is that many in the audience, not to mention in the media, are applauding this new “interpretation” as if it had some validity. There’s no art here, just childish shock effects shouting “look at me!” capped by a sombre finale that is as hypocritical as it is crass. So if you don’t have one of those hard-to-find tickets for this much-hyped revival, consider yourself fortunate. You’re better off sitting alone in your room.

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Closed: January 4, 2004