Near the end of the first act of "Cabaret," which opened last weekend at the Warner Theatre, actor Norbert Leo Butz stands on a catwalk while the rest of the cast gathers below onstage to belt out that paean to National Socialism, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." As the singing builds with lyrical, storm-trooper momentum, Butz, in the role of the Emcee, begins stomping his combat-booted feet in rhythm.
The music and voices swell to crescendo; Butz turns his back and, stripperlike, slowly starts lifting the tail of his leather coat--the only clothes he has on. At the final, ecstatic note of the song he flips the tail over his waist, bends over, shoves his naked backside at us, and there, tattooed on his right cheek, is a huge blood-red swastika.
It's hard to imagine a more jarring contrast with Harold Prince's original Broadway staging of the piece more than 30 years ago, or with Bob Fosse's wonderful 1972 movie of it. Unlike his predecessors, though, director Sam Mendes is interested in what makes absolute power the ultimate aphrodisiac. The production has its problems, but it offers unsettling insight into the material.
We are in the Kit Kat Klub, a dive in Weimar Germany. In the movie, and to great extent in Prince's staging, the Kit Kat Klub was a fantasyland where people could escape from ugly reality, and the ensuing decadence and self-indulgence allowed the Nazis to come to power.
In Mendes' version, the rise of Nazism is neither a matter of fortuitous timing nor is the story a cautionary tale against losing inhibitions. We never really leave Kit Kat Klub. Even the many scenes that happen outside are shadowed by it: The omnipresent Emcee watches, at times even walks through the action. Life is more of a cabaret than we think, Mendes seems to be saying. And we want it to be. "In here, life is beautiful," the Emcee tells us. Admittedly it's a tawdry beauty, but that's why we can't look away.
Costume designer William Ivey Long has draped Butz in ratty pants held up by what looks like a tangle of bra straps rigged as suspenders. He wears no shirt, though he does sport glitter pasties on his nipples. The seedy Kit Kat Girls, who look simultaneously young and old, and seem to be just this side of an overdose, parade their still-delectable-looking goods in old underwear, torn hose and layers of makeup.
But Mendes isn't after just any kind of lewdness. His staging, like Rob Marshall's choreography, is belligerently sexual: Someone is always in total control. Someone who is a master performer. A master seducer. Above all, a master. All of which, as more than one sociologist has pointed out, was precisely what made Hitler capable of inspiring passionate, near-hysterical devotion, particularly when he spoke at rallies. The implicit S&M component in the willingness of a passive audience/citizen to submit to an all-powerful, charismatic performer/politician is what makes this production so intriguing, at times even chilling.
It's also what forced Mendes to go with okay rather than stupendous voices: First-rate singers in a pit of a club wouldn't make much sense. He's less interested in fully realizing the musical's outstanding score than in Making a Statement.
Teri Hatcher, a movie and television actor, is making her stage debut with "Cabaret" in the role of Sally Bowles. She has a sturdy, if not versatile, voice, and her dour rendition of the show's signature tune is not unaffecting. But she has yet to make the transition off the screen: She doesn't seem to be playing to the other characters but to some invisible camera's perception of her playing to them. She doesn't appear to be in their world at all.
It doesn't help that the Warner couldn't accommodate the production as originally conceived--to be played in a cabaret-like setting, amid tables and chairs. Up on the Warner's proscenium stage, the edgy show loses some of its in-your-face intimacy, but Hatcher feels even more remote.
Fortunately, Sally's story isn't as prominent in the stage version as it was in the movie, and Hatcher has a solid ensemble behind her. As her lover Cliff, Rick Holmes handles the character's sexual ambiguity rather well. Andy Taylor plays Ernst Ludwig, Cliff's first friend in Berlin, with powerful subtlety. As the other lovers in the tale, Barbara Andres and Dick Latessa give warm, sympathetic performances--and some of the best singing. A nod also goes to Jeanine Morick for her marvelous portrayal of the prostitute living across the hall from Cliff.
Butz, however, is the man to watch. He alternately prowls, slinks and darts across the stage like an oversexed reptile. With sleazy bravado, he takes great pleasure in his increasing use of fascist chic, evidenced mostly by pose and attitude. Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari's dynamic lighting flatter the Emcee the most, as it should, just as Robert Brill's stark black-metal set seems designed specifically for him.
When the Sally-Cliff romance falls apart, focus shifts back entirely onto the Emcee, who's almost beside himself with ecstasy over the power he wields over the audience. But he has confused the pleasures and imagery of total power with its reality, which is why his demise comes as, well, something of a shock. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale.
Cabaret, book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood. Directed by Sam Mendes. Sound design by Brian Ronan; original dance music, David Baker. Through Sept. 4 at the Warner Theatre. Call 202-432-SEAT.
CAPTION: Weimar the merrier: Norbert Leo Butz, left, as the Emcee sings the praises of money with the Kit Kat Girls; Teri Hatcher, above, with Rick Holmes as her lover, makes her stage debut as Sally Bowles in "Cabaret" at the Warner Theatre.