“Cabaret” at SF Playhouse

“Cabaret” at SF Playhouse

Carol Benet

WOW!  WOWIE!  “Cabaret” at SF Playhouse is one of those shows you want to tell your friends, family, strangers and everyone that you meet that they have to see this production.  It is one of the best I have seen this year.  It is a history lesson about the licentiousness of the Weimar Republic told in song and dance and it is entertaining as well as frightening because of its parallels to today and possible outcome of our liberated times.

“Cabaret” was taken from Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical “Berlin Stories” about life there after WWI and just before the Nazi takeover in the early 1930s.  Parts of the volume were made into the stage play “I Am a Camera” by John Van Druten not long after the end of the war in 1951.  Then it became a hit Broadway musical in 1966.  In 1972 Bob Fosse reinvented it as a film starring Liza Minnelli. In 1998 the brilliant Sam Mendes brought it back to Broadway.  Now it is at the SF Playhouse under the able direction of Susi Damilano, co-founder with Bill English of the SF Playhouse.

Most people remember Joel Grey in the role of the Emcee.  In the 1998 production Mendes emphasized the gayness of the Emcee then played by Alan Cumming.  And now in San Francisco, a week after the Pride celebration and parade commemorating Stonewall, the play describes gay cabaret life during the Weimar Republic. The scenes of bawdy floor shows and back stage gropings are colorful and amusing;  the end is dire in telling the consequences of all this freedom and fun.    But please, leave the kiddies at home for this history lesson.

“Cabaret” opens with a spectacular welcoming scene directed at the audience.  We are at Kit Kat Klub with the riveting Emcee (John Paul Gonzalez) on New Year’s Eve 1929.  He introduces the floor show with the famous song “Willkommen” while a chorus of dancers and singers perform all kinds of suggestive movements.  The next scene is on a train to Berlin where a  young clean-cut writer Clifford Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) from Pennsylvania comes to Berlin to write a novel on current life here.  He meets Ernst Ludwig who invites him into the underbelly of Berlin night life. Clifford shows up at the Kit Kat Klub, and is seduced into a relationship with the star of show the beautiful and seductive Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman).  She and the chorus perform “”Don’t Tell Mama” about their wild life in Berlin.  Sally continues with a steamy “Mein Herr”.

When Cliff looked for a cheap place to live, Ernst directs him to Fräulein Schneider’s (Jennie Brick) rooming house where he negotiated a rent half of what she wanted.  Across the hall lives  the sleazy redhead Fräulein Kost (Abby Haug) who has a series of sailors making their visits to her room.

After the performance and an altercation with her boss Max (Shaun Leslie Thomas — who also plays the officious train conductor), Sally comes to Cliff’s room and begs him to let her stay there because she has just been fired from the Klub because she will no longer submit to Max. She stays with Cliff, they fall in a kind of love in a peculiar gay arrangement.  But when she finds out she is pregnant, the question of who is the father comes up and yet Cliff is delighted thinking it might be him.

There are other stories of some of the other characters  but I won’t divulge any endings. The elderly grocer Herr Schultz’s (Louis Parnell) declares his love for the landlady Fräulein Schneider— despite their old age —and they become engaged and have a joyous party.  But soon history takes over as more and more people join the Nazis and like Ludwig start wearing red Nazi armbands with swastikas.   The Emcee throws a brick through the window of Schulz’s store.  The chorus beats up Clifford for defending the Jewish Shultz;   the engagement is over when Fräulein Schneider considers her life married to a Jew would be the end of her rooming house concern and further complications ensue.  This is the history lesson that does not end well.  And unlike other musicals, the orchestra does not play the upbeat music from the show as the audience is leaving.  It is silent here.

The technical staff of “Cabaret” is comprehensive, large and skilled.  Dave Dobrusky’s orchestra seated above the stage and behind a screen plays the fabulous score by John Kander and Fred Ebb.  Nicole Heifer’s choreography is fitting for The Kit Kat Club.  Jacquelyn Scott’s set design is practical and quickly assembled as she uses every item in the new scenes.  Stacks of suitcases morph into a single bed, chairs become train seats, etc.  Abra Berman’s costumes recreate the era with those suitable for chorus girls and the Emcee, destitute people and camp inmates.  Laundra Tyme’s wigs, especially for Sally, are excellent.  Dialect Coach Kimberly Mohne Hill is successful in helping the characters speak in believable German accents.  Zoë Swenson-Graham’s fight choreographer creates authentic encounters.  And Michael Oesch’s lighting makes the whole show possible from intense hot cabaret lights to the toned down rooming house and train coach and the surreal and dreadful final scene.

This a a huge cast of actors, dancer/ singers and tech people and this does not even name all those in the production team needed for the show.  “Cabaret” at the SF Playhouse is not to be missed.  It runs through September 14.  415 677 9596 or sfplayhouse.org.

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →