Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
So it was with the opening performance of Cabaret at San Francisco Playhouse: the show is already one of the best ever, yet director Susi Damilano has managed to lovingly reinvigorate this tale of life in Berlin as the Nazis were coming to power. It would be easy to see Cabaret simply as a diverting show about life in a '30s-era nightclub, with the dark specter of fascism hanging over the proceedings. Yet under Damilano's sure hand, Cabaret is revealed to be a powerful warning against complacency and of the dangers inherent in ignoring a transformation of culture that creeps quietlyalmost surreptitiouslyuntil its tendrils have reached into every corner, and removing them becomes the work of generations.
Cabaret, with book by Joe Masteroff and score by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), 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. Cliff Bradshaw (an appropriately fresh-faced Atticus Shaindlin) is a young American novelist seeking inspiration. On the train to Berlin he makes the acquaintance of one Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn, Jr.), a gregarious Berliner who helps Cliff find a room and touts the attractions of the louche, somewhat downscale Kit Kat Klub, where the "toast of Mayfair," Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman) is the headliner, backed by the girls (and boys) of the Kit Kat chorus.
Damilano begins the show in a perfect way, with a tiny strip of light (kudos to lighting director Michael Oesch, whose work is both subtle and powerful, and serves the narrative rather than simply illuminating the environment) on a small sliding opening in a door, revealing only the eyes of the Master of Ceremonies (John Paul Gonzalez), who invites us in, segueing into the opening "Willkommen." The next number introduces the theme of apathy against forces larger than ourselves: In "So What?," Fraulein Schneider (Jennie Brick), the landlady of the boardinghouse Ernst has recommended to Cliff, sings of the equanimity she has applied to all the disappointments of lifeand not simply the fact that Cliff can only pay 50 marks for a room she'd rather rent for 100. "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?" While it may be true that happiness comes not from having what you want, but wanting what you have, Fraulein Schneider's resignation (aided by Brick's wonderfully world-weary delivery) feels less of a zen-like acceptance and more of a willful denial of the reality of both her condition and that of Germany as a whole.
The deal struck, Cliff is off to the Kit Kat Klub, where he meets both Sally and chorus boy Bobby (Zachary Isen) and ends up kissing them both. Sally's first number on the Kit Kat stage is "Don't Tell Mama," an appropriate introduction to the naughtiness of the goings-on in the club, which reek with desire and sex. Most presentations of Cabaret pull their punches on the sexuality of the show, but not this one. From thrusting hips to nipple tweaks to pantomimes of oral sex to the strap-on dildo featured in "Two Ladies," Damilano celebrates the outlaw nature of 1930s Berlin cabaret life. It's not a show for children (for more than this reason), but honestly portraying the sexual lives of the characters only heightens the impact when their libertinism is threatened by encroaching totalitarianism.
It would be hard to overstate just how good this show is. San Francisco Playhouse has started with great source material, then tapped scenic designer Jacquelyn Scott's talents to create a two-level environment in which to play the action (making steamer trunks and suitcases into assemblages representing furnishings is both creative and a subtle nod to the transient life of the lead characters) and found a cast with the chops and commitment required to fully embrace the drama inherent in the story (and put them in terrific costumes from designer Abra Berman, and choreographed them to Fosse-esque perfection by Nicole Helfer).
As Sally Bowles, Cate Hayman is a revelation. Her voice is marveloussoaring and pleading when it needs to, wounded and vulnerable when that is called for. Her rendition of "Maybe This Time" is heartbreaking, precisely because Hayman holds nothing back, reaching deep into her emotional reserves to make sure we understand just how tenuous is Sally's hold on the cheerful, fun-loving façade she presents to the outside world.
In truth, there is not a single weak performer in the cast. As the Emcee, Gonzalez leers and smiles and pouts with delightful humor and a knowing, seen-it-all wisdom that he covers with an ironic distance that paradoxically manages to allow us to see the scarred human behind the character's makeup and costume. As Fraulein Schneider and her love interest, Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz, Jennie Brick and Louis Parnell exhibit a natural chemistry, and the sincerity of their affection provides a genuine sense of heart that stands in contrast to the relationships of convenience or necessity of some of the other characters. Abby Haug is wonderful as Fraulein Kost, a hooker with a heart of gold that is much more than simply gilded: she is proud of both her sexuality and her sexual appeal, and isn't apologizing to anyone for either.
Cabaret does not have a happy ending. Love does not conquer all. By the time the lights go down for the last time, National Socialism is on the rise and dangerous times await most of the characters. The title song is usually performed as a happy, upbeat call to enjoy life and leave your troubles outside. The problem is, with troubles as serious as fascism, ignoring them is completely ineffective, and soon those troubles will find a way of worming their way into any space, whether it's a burlesque nightclub or even "sitting all alone in your room." Which is why that number in this production feelsappropriatelya bit more like an elegy than a celebration.
Nonetheless, the Bay Area should be celebrating the fact that, for the next two months, we have the opportunity to enjoy one of the best productions to ever grace a local stage. Do not let that opportunity pass you by.
Cabaret, through September 24, 2019, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday at 7:00pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturday at 3:00pm and Sunday at 2:00pm. Tickets are $35-$125, available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.