Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Ross Valley Players
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's reviews of The Legend of Pink, Reefer Madness and An American in Paris and Patrick's reviews of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, and Luna Gale

Eric Batz and Emily Radosevich
Photo Courtesy of Ross Valley Players
It's been more than 50 years since John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff's brilliant musical Cabaret debuted on Broadway. With its depiction of a seedy nightclub in freethinking Berlin (just as the Nazis were coming to power and about to crush that freedom), it was a potent work of theatrical art with an important message about the dangers of apathy and self-delusion. It still is. Especially now, with the alt-right on the rise. And even though the Emcee invites us at the top of the show to leave our troubles outside and come to the cabaret where "life is beautiful," this is—spoiler alert—not a happy musical.

Cabaret is based in part on Christopher Isherwood's "Goodbye to Berlin" and the play that book inspired, I Am a Camera by John Van Druten. It concerns a young American writer named Cliff Bradshaw (Izaak Heath) who is seeking inspiration for a novel he hopes to write. On the train to Berlin he meets Ernst Ludwig (Skylar Collins), a Berliner who helps Cliff find a boardinghouse, and introduces him to the decadent nightlife of Berlin—specifically the seedy, louche Kit Kat Klub, where one Sally Bowles (Emily Radosevich) is the headliner.

After the energetic opening of "Willkommen," it doesn't take long before we are thrown back into the cold of all those troubles outside. In fact, in the very next song we meet Fraulein Schneider (Maxine Sattizahn), the landlady of the boardinghouse who accepts both Cliff's offer of 50 marks to rent a room—and pretty much every unfortunate aspect of her life as she sings "So What?": "So once I was rich and now all my fortune is gone—so what? And love disappeared and only the memory lives on—and so what?" Sattizahn sings the number with a gentle resignation that could feel like Buddhist equanimity—understanding that happiness comes not from having what you want, but wanting what you have. But by the time the curtain falls, we'll discover it's not Zen-like acceptance, but willfully blind apathy.

Though even the original production had a lusty quality, as the decades have passed producers have upped the sexual ante, enhancing the burlesque aspects of the Kit Kat Klub and more openly addressing the issue of Cliff's sexuality. Director James Dunn's staging at Ross Valley Players is in line with this more overtly raunchy approach, but it is unfortunately undercut by his cast, who, with few exceptions, seem slightly uncomfortable with the sexual aspects of their characters. (Only Sumi Narendran seems willing to embrace the libidinous nature of her character, the very loose Fraulein Kost.) The Emcee (Eric Batz) leers well, but often mimes his groping, and other cast members sometimes pull back when they should be letting go. This is most egregious with a kiss between Cliff and Kit Kat boy Bobby (Rafael Telles) where, just as their lips are about to lock, Heath aborts the landing and kisses the corner of Telles' mouth instead. This moment of falseness instantly pulls us out of the willing suspension of disbelief and shatters the illusion director Dunn has worked so hard to establish.

The aborted sexuality also expresses itself in a lack of chemistry between Heath's Cliff and Radosevich's Sally Bowles. There's never a time when we truly feel any sexual energy between the two. What's more, Heath displays a very narrow dynamic range that puts me in mind of Dorothy Parker's famous quip about the performance of Katharine Hepburn on stage: "She runs the gamut of human emotion from A to B." Radosevich is better, but she's too young and fresh to adequately portray the hard-living, burned out Sally Bowles.

On the other hand, as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, Maxine Sattizahn and Ian Swift have a marvelous, cozy air of desire that flows naturally between them. Given the age of their characters, their chemistry is less sexual and more companionable, but it is powerful and delightful nonetheless, and the ovation the two received at curtain clearly indicated the audience felt this connection as well. They are absolutely charming together.

The Barn Theatre lends itself well to this story, with its low ceiling enhancing the cramped, cavern-like aspects of the Kit Kat Klub. Ron Krempetz does marvelous work with the space, with a rich red curtain that hides or reveals a beautifully realized upstage space that stands in well for all the other locations. Michael Berg's costumes are nicely done—except for the yoga pants he has the Emcee wearing under a half corset. They just look odd and out of place; why not tights, or a pair of ripped fishnet stockings, or even bare legs with some high boots?

Despite these problems, there is much to recommend about this production, especially the terrific score by Kander and Ebb, wonderfully played by a trio of musicians (piano, bass, drums) at stage left. Director Dunn also has done a great job—the production has a marvelous, galloping pace, and he has highlighted the darker aspects of the show in a way that has tremendous impact. When the cast finished singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," the audience was hesitant to clap. Not because the number wasn't done well (it was), but because the song is in service of horrifying nationalistic fervor. Even though Kander and Ebb's song was written two decades after WWII, and thus never sung by actual Nazis, the ideology it represents was enough to result in very tepid applause.

Cabaret is a powerful, disturbing musical where no one ends up happy. Love does not conquer all, and as the curtain falls, the Nazis are on the rise and dark, dark days are ahead for most of the characters. But it's one everyone should see, and this production is an excellent (if flawed) version that is well worth your time.

Cabaret plays through October 15, 2017, at the Barn Theatre, located in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross CA. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $27-32 general admission, and $16-19 for youth 24 and under. Tickets can be ordered by calling 415-456-9555, ext. 1 or visiting