Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Hillbarn Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's recent review of Crimes of the Heart

Keith Pinto and Jessica Maxey
Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography
Since its 1966 Broadway debut and initial eight Tonys, the inspiring hit Cabaret has continued to evolve through several major, award-winning revivals in both New York and London, becoming ever darker, starker and rawer with each new production during its fifty-year history. Hillbarn Theatre's current version of this Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics) icon of the American musical theatre is boiling hot from minute one, with sexually explicit grabbing, rubbing, pinching, slapping and thrusting of every possible body part by a cast dressed scantily in cheap bras, panties and garters or leather straps, pants, and boots.

While we hear in the opening moments the Emcee sing in "Willkommen" that in this early 1930s Berlin, "We have no troubles here! ... Here life is beautiful," there is an immediate unease, foreboding, and sense of coming doom that is much more visceral than in the original, happier welcome from the Emcee so many of us know from both stage and movie, Joel Grey. With an overall sensational cast, eye-popping choreography, and inspired direction, Hillbarn Theatre's startling, unsettling Cabaret speaks volumes to our current times with warnings to pay attention, stay alert, and take a stand before it is too late.

Against this backdrop of increasingly threatening clouds of the coming storm of evil, two parallel love stories serve as the framework for Cabaret—stories whose doomed trajectories mirror the collapse of the free and accepting society around them. In a free-flowing, boundary-defying society that has openly flaunted every diversity imaginable, one set of would-be young lovers is a gay man and an admittedly promiscuous woman; the other set is an aging German (i.e., Aryan) spinster and a widowed, Jewish merchant. That they each find attraction with someone not quite in their own mold is the key to each pairing's demise in the xenophobic world rising around them.

Aspiring writer Clifford Bradshaw arrives on New Year's Eve from America looking for inspiration for his next novel and finds himself a roommate with a nineteen-year-old, British nightclub entertainer, Sally Bowles. As a starving writer, he quickly becomes embroiled in and totally fascinated by the fast-paced, frenetic scene of Berlin's sleazier nightlife and soon finds himself surprisingly falling in love with Sally, star of the seedy Kit Kat Klub. Experimenting via Sally with his own boundaries of sexuality, he steps up to propose marriage when Sally finds herself pregnant, with the father being one of many possibilities of the past few months—including Cliff himself.

Melissa WolfKlain brings to her Sally Bowles aspects of earlier, more society sophisticated, perky and flirty Sallies as portrayed originally on stage by Jill Haworth and on screen by Liza Minnelli; but to that she a grittiness and vulnerability seen in later revival versions of Sally, including the 2014 Tony-nominated Michelle Williams. Sally's naughtiness is both tongue in cheek and brightly frisky as she clicks off lines in an overall upbeat voice in "Don't Tell Mama," surrounded by high-kicking, hip-swinging Kit Kat Girls. But her voice lowers into deeper, more guttural dimensions and the pace quickens into near frenzy as her defiance and survival-seeking stubbornness is angrily asserted in "Mein Herr," with the girls around her now almost out of control in their amazingly performed jumps, kicks, tumbles and thrusts. Sally provides in the latter song a metaphor for the shockwave about to hit German society as she sings, "It was a fine affair, but now it's over."

Later, she sings an initially hopeful but in the end clearly hesitant "Maybe This Time," delivering her message straightforward with little emotion: "It's got to happen, happen sometime, maybe this time, I'll win." While both songs are about her love life, the moods, looks, and intonations Ms. WolfKlain employs in each song paint a picture of something dire on the horizon for not just her, but for all the society around her.

But it is in her closing "Cabaret" that Melissa WolfKlain reclaims the Liza Minnelli approach to Sally, trumpeting with beautiful clarity and in ever-increasing volume her defiant resolution to survive amidst the collapse of her life and the society around her. Her stand to ignore the upcoming doom and continue to live a carefree life is fraught with fatal denial of reality, something we hear in a voice that sounds less than triumphant even with all its bravado. Overall, Ms. WolfKlain has captured her own, unique portrayal of Sally Bowles—one worth the price of the ticket to see.

In many respects, the more compelling and heart-wrenching love story in Cabaret is the one between boardinghouse owner Fräulein Schneider, played by Linda Piccone, and fruit shop merchant Herr Schultz, played by Paul Araquistain. Together, they are delightfully cute as they flirt, sing, and waltz in "It Couldn't Please Me More" (also known affectionately as "The Pineapple Song"). And they are wonderfully sweet in their side glances, soft touches, and loving eye contact as they duet in "Married." Mr. Araquistain's voice has a quality reminiscent of one coming from a 1930s radio with its crisp, smiling sound as his Herr Schultz woos his Fräulein. As is heard in her "So What?", Ms. Piccone brings incredible depth and breadth to her mature vocals as she often half sings, half speaks with a rich, resonate voice that is full of inviting personality. But when she calls off her marriage to the Jewish Herr Schultz because she is unwilling to stand up to the mocks and threats of her Nazi-loving neighbors and friends, the dignified but resigned and now deflated Fräulein Schneider brings the audience to dead silence as she sings with a quiet forebode that then builds to a fully belted voice, "What Would You Do?" Her voice goes to the core, trembling and wavering as her deep-set eyes reach out to ours and ask, "With a storm in the wind ...What would you do?"

Often watching from a perch above or appearing suddenly in any one scene as a passerby, a living prop, or a too-knowing observer, the Emcee is like a German everyman who is seeing and participating in both the frenzied world of complete hell-bent freedom and the approaching dominance of fascism. Keith Pinto takes on the role made so famous by the likes of Tony winners Joel Grey and Alan Cumming and brings his own uninhibited, fervent interpretation as well as a singing voice that can ranges from Rudy Valee smoothness to a raw, harsh, maddening quality that awakens and startles. He leaves all restraints behind as he, Jessica Maxey as Linda Piccone, and Danny Martin as Victor bring the house down with their "fiddle-de-dees" and XXX-rated shadowplay in "Two Ladies." The Emcee is the voice of repulsive anti-Semitism in his duet with a gorilla girlfriend (Rachelle Abbey), "If You Could See Her," luring us into laughter first with a song seemingly about tolerance before his highly uncomfortable ending about who is girlfriend really is. Mr. Pinto's haunting voice in "I Don't Care Much" rings with echoes of memories of what was and shows the pain and defeat of what now is. And when we see in the end who the Emcee really represents and thus what becomes his fate, an audible, collective gasp erupts across the audience, followed by stunned silence.

As dark, with ultimate doom, as Hillbarn's Cabaret is, the ingenuous direction of Erica Wyman Abrahamson and the lusty, superbly executed choreography of Riette Burdick Fallant bring lots of hoots and laughter at just the right moments throughout the production. These Kit Kat Girls and Boys land on my list as one of the best, most polished, and totally outlandish and repulsive (in an appropriate way) Cabaret ensembles I have ever seen—including many Broadway, touring, and other outstanding local productions. Their crawling, undulating, snarling, wracked-looking bodies reek with greed in "Money" as we see in one frenzied song, a Depression-deprived, pre-Nazi Germany too starving for the dictator to come. Their darkened, pursed lips, black-lined, wide-open eyes, and spotlighted, drawn faces leave images hard to forget long after the song is over.

Director Abrahamson has added another touch I do not remember from past productions. Just as the Emcee forebodingly appears watching scenes develop under and around him, so does Fräulein Kost, prostitute and boarder of Fräulein Schneider's, who peers with ever darker stares at the growing romance of her landlady and the Jewish fruit seller. Noelani Neal sent shudders down my spine with her piercing stares and steely smirks as her tall, slender silhouette hid in the all-seeing shadows.

The grim, mostly empty stage of black, cracking walls and three black doors appears to be Steve Nyberg's way of reminding us that the economy and the outlook is grim, no matter how laissez-faire and loose the norms and nightlife at first appear in this Berlin of the early '30s, as witnessed by the bright lights and silver curtains on the Kit Kat Klub's stage above. Pam Lampkin's costumes for the Kit Kat Girls and Boys, the Emcee, and Sally are lewd and luscious at the same time, and for all other characters are in keeping with the nature of their persona and the gloomy, economic times. Christian Mejia's lighting focuses starkly on washed-out faces and lives while continuing the fading fable of glitter and glitz.

Worthy of its own standing ovation is the eleven-piece orchestra under the direction of Joseph Murphy. Their quality of musical excellence is striking throughout, but they particularly hit the ball out of the park in the second act "Entr'acte" as a number of musicians have a chance to shine in solo spotlights.

Falling a bit short in this near-perfect production is the choice that Brad Satterwhite makes to play the American writer Cliff in such a low-key, matter-of-fact, close to monotone manner. Unfortunately, the result is that there is missing a convincing spark of attraction between him and Sally. Even when he does become more angry and determined as the story progress, his emotions are just a bit too forced for full believability.

Each time I leave a production of Cabaret, I am left with two haunting memories. The first is the earworm that will not go away of the alluring melody with horrific meanings, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" (performed in this production at the end of act one in a disturbing, chilling manner with the stomping of Nazi soldiers keeping time to the beautifully sung harmonies). No matter what I do, I cannot seem to stop humming for days the glorious-sounding tune, even as I remind myself that it is a call to Aryan youth and citizens to join the Nazi cause. The second is Fräulein Schneider's "What Would You Do," as I always wonder what would I have done then if I had been either she or Herr Schultz. Would I have stood up to others' threats? Would I have risked my life to save others? Would I have remained with undue optimism that the inevitable would not happen? Even now, I hear Linda Piccone as Fräulein Schneider as she pressingly probes:

          Go on; tell me,
          I will listen.
          What would you do?
          If you were me?

Cabaret continues through February 5, 2017, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-349-6411.