Hillbarn stages provocative, polished ‘Cabaret’
Decadence reigns in the world of “Cabaret,” the musical masterpiece presented by Hillbarn Theatre.
The title locale is Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub in the late 1920s. It’s a tawdry place where seemingly anything goes.
Sexuality, both straight and gay, is expressed by the groping and couplings in the chorus. It’s also heard in the suggestive lyrics of lyricist Fred Ebb as well as the leering of the Emcee (Keith Pinto).
The Emcee wears black leather along with black lipstick, black eye makeup, even black nail polish. Women in the chorus wear skimpy flesh-colored costumes (by Pam Lampkin) and surly expressions. The men never smile either.
Starring at the club is an Englishwoman, Sally Bowles (Melissa WolfKlain). She insinuates herself into the room and then the heart of Cliff Bradshaw (Brad Satterwhite), an aspiring American writer who’s new in town.
He rents his room from an older spinster, Fraulein Schneider (Linda Piccone). Also renting there is Fraulein Kost (Noelani Neal), a prostitute because she needs the money. Fraulein Schneider tolerates her because she needs the money, too.
The third renter is Herr Schultz (Paul Araquistain), a kindly fruit merchant who chastely courts Fraulein Schneider.
In this setting, some people like Cliff and Fraulein Schneider recognize the dangers posed by the rise of the Nazis. Others like Sally choose to ignore it or downplay it, as is true of Herr Schultz, even though he’s Jewish.
All of this unfolds through John Kander’s memorable music, which reflects Joe Masteroff’s book, which is based on John Van Druten’s play, “I Am a Camera” and stories by Christopher Isherwood.
Of course there’s the title song, which isn’t heard until late in the second act. Before that are such gems as the opening number, “Willkommen” along with “Mein Herr,” “Maybe This Time,” “Money,” “If You Could See Her” and many more.
The most chilling song is also one of the most tuneful, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” sung by a boy (Leo McMahon) in what looks like a Boy Scout outfit except for the swastika arm band. In the memorable 1972 movie starring Joel Grey as the Emcee and Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, this scene starts with only an angelic boy’s face visible. Then the camera pulls back to show more of him, including the arm band.
Also featured in the Hillbarn production is Ernst Ludwig (Russell Ward), the German who befriends Cliff but who has his own motives.
This production and its outstanding cast are astutely directed by Erica Wyman Abrahamson, who played Sally in Broadway By the Bay’s 2004 production. The terrific choreography is by Riette Burdick Fallant.
Joseph Murphy directs the 10-member orchestra on an upstage platform behind a glittery curtain. Otherwise, the set by Steve Nyberg is spartan with three doors beneath the platform and simple wood chairs used for scene changes. Lighting is by Christian Mejia with sound by Zak Stamps. In a welcome reversal from some previous Hillbarn musicals, the orchestra doesn’t drown out the singers.
Even though the stage musical premiered in 1966, it remains timely. As Hillbarn artistic director Dan Demers points out in his program notes, “The musical’s warning about the temptations of fascism, nationalism and prejudice echo through time, being, even in this day, relevant.”
Because of its mature political and sexual themes, Demers recommends this show for mature audiences only.
Running about two and half hours with one intermission, it rewards such an audience with a polished, powerful, provocative production.
“Cabaret” will run through Feb. 5 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.