Based extensively on Christopher Isherwood’s semi autobiographical Goodbye To Berlin set during the inexorable rise of the Nazis, Hal Prince’s legendary Broadway production was already steeped in historic reflection sufficient to carry the musical as an extraordinary piece of entertainment whilst still clearly referencing the tumultuous times and geo-politics of the financially crippled Weimar Republic in which the story took place. Here, in the infinitely less assured hands of director Rebecca Frecknall, (who previously dazzled with her delicately sensual 2019 rendering of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams), the young cast opt for a dowdily woke and more didactic approach in their re-telling, which at times verges on self-indulgent, unsophisticated and even tedious.
The charming and universally liked Eddie Redmayne (who this reviewer last saw adorn a London stage as the striking yet silent Polydorus in Jonathan Kent’s Donmar Warehouse production of Hecuba in 2004), has bizarrely assumed the role of Emcee rather than the more natural, sexually ambiguous romantic lead Clifford Bradshaw. Instead, Omari Douglas proves less than entirely convincing in the part - especially in his scenes with Jessie Buckley’s Sally Bowles where there isn’t the slightest frisson of chemistry - sexual or otherwise. Stepping into Joel Grey’s shoes (as the acknowledged definitive Emcee from the 1972 movie) is no small challenge for any performer - least of all a bums-on-seats, award winning film star like Eddie Redmayne - but he has a surprisingly good singing voice which thankfully is used to good effect. In some ways he has played safe by accentuating the same Asperger’s twitching and awkward stoop which he deployed as J K Rowling’s Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts films, but here with added Uriah Heap for an extra dose of creepy and unpleasant. At times it’s layered-on so thickly that it detracts from the company numbers — even those enhanced by use of of the illuminated central revolve drum which adds a dimension to the auditorium.
It is left to West End stalwart Anna-Jane Casey (as Fraulein Kost), with help from Liza Sadovy (as Fraulein Schneider) and Elliot Levey (as Herr Schultz) to provide the comic zing and tragic romance elements. Thankfully, they more than make up for the general mis-firings elsewhere in the cast, most notable of which was Ms Buckley’s wholly at-sea and mis-judged Sally Bowles. She lacks both charisma and the skills to pull-off the musical numbers with anything approaching the necessary aplomb, resorting instead to the extremes of fatuous flim-flam and regularly shouting her melody lines. This was not helped by the live orchestra repeatedly indulging Ms Buckley’s tendency to drag the tempo in her numbers.
Sam Mendes’ 1993 production with Alun Cummings for the Donmar Warehouse shone like a beacon by comparison and even the provincial low budget 1994 effort at the Derby Playhouse exuded a charm which this production fails to convey. Audiences will still applaud wildly at the end (and inappropriately at the deliberately anti-Semitic gorilla suit number “If You Could See Her” - which their shocked silence should more appropriately raise hairs on the back of the neck). At these blistering seat prices however, everyone is entitled to convince themselves they’ve witnessed a heartfelt and dazzling spectacle. The more theatre-wise (and perhaps cynical) will be less easily swayed… especially by amateurish efforts to entice eager am-dram audience members onto the stage late into the interval, to make a spectacle of themselves.