CABARET given a powerful outing at SF Playhouse

The Master of Ceremonies (John Paul Gonzalez) performs with the Kit Kat Dancers in ‘Cabaret’ at San Francisco Playhouse.

CABARET: Musical. Book by Joe Masteroff; Based on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Directed by Susi Damilano. San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, 2nd floor of the Kensington Park Hotel. 415-677-9596, or online at

June 26 through September 14, 2019

CABARET given a powerful outing at SF Playhouse. Rating: ★★★★★

“WWWelcome, strangers, to the Cabaret”, sings the master of ceremonies in a thick German accent as he intermingles his way through a bevy of androgynous “showgirls” draped over each other in various lascivious postures. It is a sinister invitation to the underground world of 1929 Germany to be sequestered from what is happening outside its door.

That is the beginning of the musical Cabaret that was a major hit about 50 years ago as it chronicled the rise of Nazism and a conflagration that shattered the world. It is as cogent today as it was when the musical had its smash outing with Joel Grey in the lead role. Since then Alan Cumming put his personal stamp as the emcee at the Donmar Warehouse in London and at Studio 54 in NYC in the 1998 revival. Frances Jue’s 1996 brilliant performance as the emcee at TheatreWorks followed the mold of his predecessors. SF Playhouse mounted the show on their miniscule Sutter Street stage in 2008 with Bill English as director.  

What a difference 10 years has made, not only in the physical surroundings but in the entire tenor placed on this production under the inventive direction of Susi Damilano. It is difficult to gather a cast to compare with the three masters of the emcee role mentioned above. Daminlao has put her personal stamp on the show by casting a much more muscular emcee (John Paul Gonzalez) and added great physicality into the lascivious dancing ensemble.

The book by Joe Masteroff is based on John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera that was a dramatization of Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories.”  Lyrics and Music provided by Fred Ebb and John Kander created a memorable evening in1966 Broadway production running for 1,165 performances and went on to the 1972  film with Grey and Liza Minnelli.

The story revolves around cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman) and a brief affair with Clifford Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) an American writer who takes her in after she is kicked out of the Kit Kat Club inhabited with sexually charged characters with androgynous personalities. The inhabitants shelter themselves from impending Nazi take over with “No good in sitting alone in your room, come hear the music play.” A form of love develops between Sally and Clifford before external forces drive them apart. Another tragic “love story” develops between Frauelin Schneider (Jennie Brick) a German owner of a boarding house and her Jewish admirer Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell).   

Other major characters are Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn Jr.) an avid Nazi who ‘befriends’ Clifford involving him in smuggling funds from Paris and prostitute Fraulein Kost (Abby Haug) who gives a devastating rendition of the Nazi rallying song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

Cate Hayman is perfect for the part of Sally Bowles with an expressive soprano voice that gives stature to the humor of “Don’t Tell Mama” to the plaintive “Maybe This Time” and literally brings house to their feet in her final “Cabaret.”  Atticus Shaindlin as Clifford is a perfect foil who rallies against the impending political devastation and makes you understand his turmoil with the breakup of his relationship with Sally.

The interaction between Jennie Brick as Frauelin Schneider and Louis Parnell as Herr Schultz makes you feel their loneliness and love that begins with an offering of a pineapple leading to the promise of happiness in “Married” ending with the plaintive “What Would You Do?” Damilano adds a brilliant directorial touch with the simple dropping of a brick symbolizing “Kristallnacht.”

Fräulein Schneider (Jennie Brick*) and Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell*) share a moment in ‘Cabaret’ at San Francisco Playhouse.

The entire production is unique starting with the superlative casting of John Paul Gonzalez as the emcee to the ensemble that is composed of all shapes, sizes and color and the on stage band that rocked the house with a jazz version of the music before the second act curtain.  

The ensemble is involved in numerous highlights that seem one better than the other and earn their own accolades for their fantastic dancing and singing.  Gonzalez dominates the stage and the “girls” who follow his orders to a tee. A special treat is his interaction with dancers Rosie (Melissa WolfKlain) and Frenchie (Mary Kalita) in “Two Ladies.”  He also shines with “Money, Money, Money”   and “If You Could Only See Her” (through my eyes) that injects racism into the show.

The creative crew has outdone themselves with an appropriately unadorned stage set with staircases at each side of the stage, costumes adding to the decadence, choreography almost unbelievable, and the onstage band on a second level. Damilano has added two café tables where audience members can sit adding to the ambiance (if you can call it that) of the Kit Kat Klub.

Throughout the entire evening you as an audience begin to feel with trepidation signaled with the end of the first act with the Nazi characters proclaiming “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Be prepared for a devastating final curtain that brought the audience to their feet.

Running time is two hours and twenty minutes with an intermission.

CAST: Jennie Brick as Fräulein Schneider; John Paul Gonzalez as Emcee; Carlos Guerrero as Ensemble; Abby Haug as Fräulein Kost; Cate Hayman as Sally Bowles; Zachary Isen as Ensemble; Jean-Paul Jones as Ensemble; Mary Kalita as Kit Kat Dancer; Louis Parnell as Herr Schultz; Atticus Shaindlin as Clifford Bradshaw; Will Springhorn Jr. as Ernst Ludwig; Zoe Swenson-Graham as Kit Kat Dancer; Melissa WolfKlain as Rosie/Kit Kat Dancer.

CREATIVE TEAM: Director, Susi Damilano; Music Director, Dave Dobrusky; Choreographer, Nicole Helfer; Scenic Designer, Jacquelyn Scott; Costume Designer, Abra Berman; Lighting Designer, Michael Oesch; Sound Designer,Teddy Huisker; Properties Designer, Jacquelyn Scott; Wig Designer, Laundra Tyme; Casting Director, Dori Jacob; Stage Manager, Sara Sparks.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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