From across New York's West 43rd Street, the marquee of the new Kit Kat Klub theatre beckons with words familiar to lovers of musical theatre: "Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome."
Those are the first words heard in the Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret, currently being revived on Broadway in an "environmental" production, directed by Sam Mendes, which goes beyond the one he staged at London's Donmar Warehouse in 1993.
"It's a totally different version," he said at a recent press conference on the theatre's stage. "It's a fuller version."
Mendes has insisted from the beginning on creating a total atmosphere of seedy, degenerate Berlin in the early 1930s. He resisted opening the show at a traditional Broadway house. When the Theatre District boit The Supper Club was not available in 1996-97, Mendes was content to postpone a year until the right venue was available.
The words on the marquee are only the beginning: the front door to the Kit Kat Klub -- original Henry Miller's Theatre (as is still engraved at the top of the theatre's facade) and more recently discos Xenon and Club Expo -- has no glass window as others on Broadway do; it's solid, with just a peephole. You expect to have to whisper "Joe sent me," to gain entrance. Mendes said, "We took a theatre that had turned into a club, then turned it back into a theatre so we could turn it back into a club."
Cheesy gold paint around the box office window is tarnished and chipped. Inside, the formerly high-gloss blue disco walls have been repainted a clotted mix of black and red. Seats in the orchestra have been removed and replaced with tiny round cafe tables, each topped with a red-tassled lamp and surrounded by Bentwood chairs. In the mezzanine, seating is on leopard-patterned banquettes.
High above, fans rotate menacingly. Backlit by purple fresnels, they cast flashing black shadows on every face.
Cigarette-burned carpet was left on the stairways. Dully sparkling roofing material was heat-bonded to the floor at the back of the house. A six-foot mirror ball hangs above the mezzanine where most theatres have a chandelier. Runner lights trace the edge of the boxes and mezzanine, with many bulbs deliberately missing or broken.
Young designer Robert Brill is credited with set design, but since the entire theatre is considered part of the set, his work includes a redesign of the house's complete interior, including seats, aisles, ceiling, hallways -- even, to some degree, rest rooms.
Brill, who told Playbill On-Line "I've never done anything like this," said he honed his sensibility in the 1980s at Sledgehammer Theatre in San Diego. Sledgehammer would put on site-specific shows in places like storefronts and warehouses, and used the ambience of the locales as inspiration for improvisation.
Brill said that when he first arrived in the space in August 1997, there was an immediate challenge: no stage. The one now there "looks like it's been around since the 1930s, but in fact was built expressly for this production."
The flyspace was unused. The dressing rooms had been locked away for storage. Backstage had been converted into a bar area. Some of these problems were corrected, but, in keeping with Mendes' vision, some were incorporated into the Cabaret environmental concept. Part of the deal with the Klub's owners is that the space will continue to function as a club. After each night's performance, the actors will pack up and leave, and the club patrons will sit in seats still warm from the Cabaret audiences. The backstage bar will open up once more.
Another lucky discovery: that giant mirror ball was a holdover from the space's Xenon days, and will remain. There are also smaller mirror balls.
Cabaret is set in Berlin in the 1930s, as the Nazis were coming to power. The musical follows a young American writer who arrives in the German capital at this crucial moment and strikes up a friendship with Sally Bowles, a young cabaret singer. Cliff serves as witness to the compromises and failures of courage that eventually allow the Nazis to dominate society and ruin the characters' lives. The show's innovative structure has stage acts at Sally's cabaret serving to comment on the alternating plot scenes. The cabaret serves as mirror to the decay of the society. In this production, the cabaret becomes all-encompassing.
The theater is not the only thing being renovated.
Librettist Joe Masteroff told Playbill On-Line that the central character of Cliff has been reconceived to make him more overtly homosexual -- something Masteroff said could only be hinted at in the 1966 original. Sseveral of the show's most familiar numbers, including "Meeskite" and "Why Should I Wake Up?," have been dropped to refocus the show and to make way for several songs from the 1972 film, including "Mine Lieber Herr" and "The Money Song."
-- By Robert Viagas