Following Joel Grey as the Emcee in Cabaret is a bit like following Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or, I would imagine, Mark Rylance in Jerusalem. Mr. Grey is one of those performers who seems like he learned to entertain before he learned to crawl, and his Emcee is both attractive and repellent, with a face out of German Expressionism and an ambiguous Glasgow smile that never quite reveals whether he is a Jew satirizing the Nazi establishment (as is indicated in most productions after the 1998 Broadway revival) or an antisemite endorsing it.
Fortunately, Alan Cumming is splendidly suited for the part, too, and even if his Emcee’s position is less ambiguous—at the end of the musical he is wearing striped pajamas—his lithe prancing and devilish encouragement of hedonism proves a nice emblem of the final days of the Weimar Republic. In the beginning, his voice sounds like a slide whistle as he tells us that life and the dancers and even the orchestra are “beyootiful.” After the intermission and at the end of “If You Could See Her,” he practically spits the word Jewish in “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all,” a chilling coda to the freedom from political unrest offered by the Kit Kat Klub.
Of course, the Emcee only frames Cabaret, but he is nonetheless its most interesting character. The platonic love affair between Cliff Bradshaw (Bill Heck) and Sally Bowles (Michelle Williams), the persecution of Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein) and his broken engagement with Fraulein Schneider (Linda Emond), even the political intrigue of Ernst Ludwig (Aaron Krohn) all feel like filler in comparison to songs like “Willkommen” and “I Don’t Care Much.” These are what make Cabaret so devastating.
Holocaust narratives usually fail because they render their subject too directly, which results in something like the obscenely saccharine Schindler’s List, the obscenely saccharine Life Is Beautiful, or the obscenely saccharine Jakob the Liar. While I would have preferred the older staging of Cabaret, which is free of imagery as loaded as the yellow Star of David, this revival still succeeds because of what it infers instead of what it depicts. We don’t need to watch the Emcee enter the gas chambers; it is enough to watch everything that happens before he gets on the trains.