“The party in Berlin is over. It was a lot of fun, but it’s over.” That line is delivered by Cliff Bradshaw, American writer abroad and stand in for the gay British author Christopher Isherwood in Kander, Ebb and Masteroff’s musical theatre masterpiece, Cabaret.

Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, captures the excitement and danger of the Weimar era at a time when artists and writers felt sufficiently liberated to express their sex and sexuality while protesting political and social issues through the popular medium of sketch, song and dance. Just listen to the music of the time. Composers like Holländer, Grosz and Spoliansky wrote naughty, tuneful songs full of innuendo and packed with subversive imagery to puncture bourgeois stereotypes. Isherwood caught that sense of fun combined with danger, and so too did Kander and Ebb writing in 1966, the next genuinely permissive era. For Nicholas Christo’s new production at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre, however, fun is in fatally short supply, replaced by the kind of coarse, aggressive, sexually violent behaviour more in keeping with an up-to-date S&M club.

Chelsea Gibb and Kit Kat Girls. Photos by John McRae

This isn’t just an over-the-top misfire, it misrepresents the time and the message of the work, while saddling the hard working and in some cases excellent cast with a major obstacle. We need to care about the denizens of the Kit Kat Klub. We need to enjoy their wit and applaud their politics. We need to be turned on by their sense of sexual anything goes, and fear for them as the Nazis close in. Here the Emcee and dancers are hard, angry and vulgar, while for the first hour Kelley Abbey’s well-disciplined choreography is merely a repetitive sequence of thrusting pelvises and smacked arses. When number after number includes simulated fellatio and references to rimming and fisting, there’s nowhere for it to go in the second half when the piece gets political. It has, so to speak, shot its load.

That’s not to say it’s all bad. James Browne’s set and costume design, perfectly complemented by Rob Sowinski’s delicately detailed lighting design, is beautifully observed. The sense of period is palpable, from the battered parquet floor through to the meshed footlights and the peeling 1920s posters adorning the walls. Browne makes the Hayes’ postage stamp somehow bigger than I’ve seen it before, providing Christo with the means to neatly shift gears from cabaret stage to domestic interior. It even allows for regular reveals of the excellent seven-piece band who play their hearts out for conductor Lindsay Partridge. Christo delivers some nice touches too. The impassive Nazis behind the doors in the second half build a sense of menace and the mixing of onstage ‘act’ with the actions of Cliff, Sally and the other residents of Fräulein Schneider’s dilapidated boarding house – using The Money Song to show Cliff’s smuggling trips to Paris is a neat conceit.

But there are more directorial misses than hits. Too many meaningful moments seem to be about to land an emotional body blow, only to fall short as Christo fails to follow through and finesse the matter. The entr’acte where the Emcee wore a Hitler mask, using Herr Schultz as the gorilla in If You Could See Her, and the well-staged final sequence show the production’s potential, but why stage Two Ladies with a man and a woman? That just seems perverse.

Matthew Manahan, Paul Capsis and Chelsea Gibb

Performances here range from the very good to the not so. As Sally Bowles, Chelsea Gibb puts in a strong performance, at her best when we see her let down her guard with Cliff. She’s not helped early on by being got up like a stripper, but she captures the fragility, essential Englishness, and emotional messiness of this mixed-up soul culminating in a terrific rendition of the title number in which you really do believe she knew the irrepressible Elsie. Vocally she treads the fine line between ‘not very good’ – which is what Sally is meant to be as a performer – and belting it out like a good ‘un. Jason Kos gives us plenty of confused naivety as Cliff, his conflicted sexuality nicely brought out by Christo’s character arc. His political determination is perhaps a little underplayed early on, but he essentially carries the story with an easy authority. He has a smooth singing voice as well, though Don’t Go is probably the score’s weakest number.

Lead acting honours go to John O’May’s warmly endearing Herr Schultz and Debora Krizak’s battered and badgered Fräulein Kost. O’May has a flexible voice, still able to encompass the character’s high-lying melodies and he engages our sympathies without seeming to try. Krizak is blessed with fine acting skills and her performance ranges from the painfully comical to the downright pitiable as she seems to increasingly pay the price demanded of so many sex workers. The painfully raw moment when Kost offers herself to Schultz for two marks should wring our heartstrings, but a directorial failure leaves the two just wandering apart. Marcus Graham, meanwhile, puts in a frenetic turn as the politically duplicitous Ernst, nicely overwhelming Cliff with his enthusiasm and rattlesnake charm.

Less successful is Kate Fitzpatrick’s Fräulein Schneider who comes and goes dramatically and seems uncomfortable having to act and sing at the same time in her opening number, So What? As her relationship with Herr Schultz develops, she grows in emotional depth, but she misses the downtrodden sardonic wit of a Lotte Lenya or a Judi Dench (the original Sally Bowles in London, but who recorded a brilliant Fräulein Schneider for JAY back in 1999).

Jason Kos, Chelsea Gibb, Kate Fitzpatrick and John O’May

Paul Capsis’ Emcee is also problematic. Bearing a striking resemblance to the aging Wallis Simpson he’s grotesquely and heavily made up and offers little of the sexual allure of an Alan Cummings. Instead he’s inclined to hector and leer where he should wheedle and wink, the punch always conceled in a velvet glove. With little shift from top gear, the over-miked sound design here does him no favours, resulting in a shrill performance in too many numbers. He’s at his best in If You Could See Her and The Money Song where it feels like his dramatic throughline is clear. But in the opening and songs like Two Ladies it feels like he’s been pushed too hard and given no room to manoeuvre. He should be obvious casting in this role – he was far better a few years back in Malthouse’s Threepenny Opera, under the fine direction of Michael Kantor – but here it’s a real case of much less would have been much more. And to be honest, that goes for much of the rest of the show.

Cabaret is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until March 5. It opens at the Atheneum, Melbourne on May 1

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