BWW Review: CABARET at SF Playhouse is an Eye-Popping, Wonderfully Acted Revival That Is As Relevant Today As When It Premiered in 1966
SF Playhouse's production of Cabaret, with its dark messages of our tendency to repeat the horrors of the past, is both great theatre and a dire warning to keep our eyes and ears open. Not for the faint of heart, Cabaret speaks to our universal base instincts of bigotry, self-indulgence and sexual decadence. There are no happy endings here, but much to think about after the powerfully dramatic finale.
Cabaret's story of two doomed love affairs is set in the decaying Kit Kat Club and a dilapidated boarding house amid the Nazi rise in 1930's Berlin. Struggling novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) is an optimist who falls for Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman), a self-indulgent, booze-hound cabaret singer. Trapped in her own inertia and dedicated wholeheartedly to her fate, Sally is condemned at any chance of romance ("Maybe This Time"). Similarly, the widowed landlord Fraulein Schneider's (Jennie Brick) romance with Jewish tenant Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell) will blossom beautifully ("It Couldn't Please Me More") only to wither and die through her fear of the rising anti-Semitism and her conviction to loneliness ("What Would You Do").
Tying this all together is the Kit Kat Klub Emcee, a Mephistophelian character, part wry sexuality and a siren of impending dread. John Paul Gonzalez is a marvel as he entices the audience to "Leave your troubles outside! So, life is disappointing? Forget it! In here, life is beautiful." Only it's not. There is no reprieve from the looming horrors to come. Gonzalez lurks around the corners of the stage when he's not enticing us with "Wilkhommen", telling it like it is on "Money", or acting like a Greek chorus on the anti-Semitic "If You Could See Her".
Shaindlin is both the perfect counterpoint to the lost and exasperated Sally. Delighted to be a part of the depravity of the Weimar Berlin, which he'll use as inspiration for his writing, he really believes he can save Sally from her vices. In his second go round playing Clifford, Shaindlin delivers a genuine, heartfelt performance. Jennie Brick and Louis Parnell create magic with their ill-fated passion. Her desire is counterbalanced by her weakness, while his optimism that Nazism will pass is naively heart wrenching.
Susi Damilano directs with a deft hand, creating both sensational dance sequences and tender, understated dramatic interludes. The overall feel is highlighted with Jacquelyn Scott's scenic design, Michael Oesch's nightclub lighting, Abra Berman's insightful costuming and the superb musical direction of Dave Dobrusky. Bob Fosse's original choreography is re-interpreted by Nicole Helfer and is clever, entrancing and eye-popping. The ensemble dancers/actors are all amazing as is Abby Haug as the unapologetic prostitute Fraulein Kost.
There are magical moments in this production; the emcee playing a scratchy Victrola recording of "Tomorrow Belongs To Me" as a scary harbinger of nationalism, the second act kick line dance which starts out very Busby Berkeley but morphs into a zombie Nazi march, the emcee's fatalistic number "I Don't Care Much" and of course the stunning and powerfully emotional finale.
The real standout of this production, among many, is the star-making performance of Cate Hayman. From the moment she makes her entrance with "Don't Tell Mama", Hayman, a senior at Carnegie Mellon University and Bay Area native, owns the stage and will make you forget Liza with a Z's iconic Oscar-winning performance. She's heartbreaking as Sally, as she wafts between kewpie doll cuteness, sexual panther and depressed loser. When asked by Cliff whether she understands the German lines she's acting, she blithely states "it's better not knowing". This sentiment is at the heart of the play, where characters both know what's brewing and do nothing, and those who blindly follow the herd.
The second act of Cabaret is a punch in the gut. It's both a remembrance of the end of one era and the bleak reality that replace it as well as a reminder that we should not miss the slow, often unnoticed march of events that lead to catastrophe. Damilano and company give us the needed kick in the pants with an intense eye-opening production.
Cabaret continues through September 14th, 2019 at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. Tickets available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling (415) 677-9596.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli