Joe Masteroff (Book); John Kander (Music); Fred Ebb (Lyrics)
|John Paul Gonzalez & the Kit Kat Dancers|
Since its 1966 Broadway debut and its initial eight Tonys, 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-plus-year history. The current, San Francisco Playhouse, summer-long production of this Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics) icon of 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 in torn t-shirts, leather, and boots. While we hear in the opening moments our tawdry, tongue-licking Master of Ceremonies sing that in this 1929 Berlin, “We have no trouble here ... Here life is beautiful,” there is an immediate unease, foreboding, and sense of coming doom in his “Willkommen” that is much more visceral than in the original, happier welcome by the Emcee so many of us know from both stage and movie, Joel Grey.
As powerfully conceived and directed by Susi Damilano, SF Playhouse’s revival and re-conceiving of its 2008 stellar production of Cabaret is in every respect even more startling, unsettling, and yes, sensational in 2019. The director and her cast heed us not to forget the horrific atrocities of the Nazi past while also speak volumes to our current times with warnings to pay attention, stay alert, and take a stand before it is too late.
|Atticus Shaindlin & Cate Hayman|
Against a 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 liberal and accepting Weimer Republic society around them. In a free-flowing, boundary-defying Berlin society that openly flaunts every diversity imaginable, one set of would-be young lovers is a gay man and a sexually active woman (still almost a girl); and the other set is an aging German (i.e., Aryan) spinster and a widowed, Jewish merchant, proud of his own German birth. 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 in brown shirts and Nazi armbands.
Aspiring writer Clifford Bradshaw arrives on New Year’s Eve, 1929 from America, looking for inspiration for his novel and finds himself suddenly roommates with a nineteen-year-old, British nightclub entertainer, Sally Bowles. Atticus Shaindlin plays with an initially subdued, cautious air this starving writer who soon finds himself embroiled and totally fascinated in the fast-paced, frenetic scene of Berlin’s sleazier nightlife. His sexual preference for young men like himself is a secret he finds he no longer needs to hide; yet he also finds himself surprisingly falling in love with this girl-barely-woman Sally, to the point of stepping up to propose marriage once she finds herself pregnant with the father possibly being one of many possibilities, including evidently Cliff. Atticus Shaindlin’s Cliff is a fascinating mixture of a young man with a boy-like look of confusion over his evident enticement for this new world of sins and freedoms galore and of a young man who also carries within him a deep rooting of his Pennsylvanian, more traditional background and values.
There is an internal vulnerability we can viscerally feel that is directly opposite to the outward bold and brash persona Cate Hayman’s Sally Bowles tries her best always to project. But when her Sally begins to sing, it is that inner uncertainly and maybe just a bit of fear that is heard in her initially soft, shuddering notes in “Don’t Tell Mama” or in her slow and pause-filled opening of “Mein Heir” where a lonely note is often echoed by a quick and unsettling turn of the foot, hand, or head. In each number, she employs notable shifts in tempo to shift moods quickly as her Sally recaptures the cocky confidence and disdain for care and caution that in turn lead her to sing with ever-increasing frenzy and volume. In “Mein Heir,” she and the Kit Kat Klub dancers – girls, guys, and those either/both –take that frenzy and send it into warp speeds of sexually explicit poses and moves that become an out-of-control mass of bent-bodies, pounding thrusts, and butt-happy slaps. In the end, there is no doubt but that under every sign of momentary helplessness that Sally may periodically exhibit, there is a much stronger defiance and survival-seeking stubbornness that can find multiple ways to be angrily asserted.
In “Mein Heir,” Sally provides a warning of the shockwave about to hit German society of which she sings: “It was a fine affair, but now it’s over.” Later, she sings an initially questioning, then somewhat hopeful, but in the end clearly doubtful “Maybe This Time,” delivering a message trying its best to be happy but with a feeling of doom as she belts, “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 Cate Hayman employs in each song paint a picture of something dire on the horizon for not just her, but for all the society around her.
It is in her closing “Cabaret” that Cate Hayman most departs from the Liza Minnelli film and recorded version of Sally Bowles so many of us know so well. This Sally enters a bit drunk/drugged, barely able to stand or sing. As she stands alone at the microphone recalling her friend Elsie’s tragic but peace-producing end, we sense Sally is predicting her own, inevitable demise. As she becomes more hard-hitting, angry, even violent declaring, “When I go, I’m going like Elsie,” her follow-up of “it’s only a cabaret” is resounding in its conclusion that while she has chosen to stay in Berlin and not follow Cliff to London, she knows that the end for her and for this act called free-wheeling Berlin is soon coming to a German close. Cate Hayman has captured her own, strikingly singular portrayal of Sally Bowles – one worth the price of the ticket to see.
|Kit Kat Dancers|
Sally is often accompanied by up to seven chorus dancers of the Kit Kat Klub, whose mixed and fluid genders flaunt their bodies scantily clothed usually in various forms of cheap, sexy, undergarments conceived by costume designer Abra Berman (who also clothes them in leather, boots, and Nazi hats). Their dances are suggestive to the max; raw to the point of no restraint; and full of the highest kicks, splits in every direction (up, down, sideways), and moves that have to be seen with our own bugged eyes to believe – all designed by the brilliant choreographer, Nicole Helfer, and executed with wow-impact by Dance Captain, Melissa WolfKlain.
|Jennie Brick & Louis Parnell|
In many respects, the more compelling and heart-wrenching love story of the two in Cabaret is the one between boarding house owner, Fräulein Schneider, and fruit shop merchant, Herr Schultz. Together the two sixty-somethings are as delightfully cute as two bashful teenagers as they flirt, sing, and waltz in “It Couldn’t Please Me More” – also known affectionately as “The Pineapple Song.” And what will be a brief moment, they are radiantly happy as they duet in “Married,” “For you look up one day and look around and say, some body wonderful married me.” With a thin-lined smile and eyes that twinkle through their slits, Louis Parnell brings a sweet set of aging vocals as his Herr Schultz woos his Fräulein, played with equally endearing effects by Jennie Brick.
With an authenticity of emotional depth, Jennie Brick half-sings, half-speaks Fräulein Schneider’s earlier “So What?” as she provides us a lifetime of hard-earned wisdom that Fräulein Schneider has acquired. 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 deflated Fräulein Schneider looks eye-to-eye at Cliff and then directly at us in the audience and sings in a trembling, sad voice full of haunting forebode, “There’s a storm in the wind ... What would you do?”
|John Paul Gonalez & Kit Kat Dancers|
Always watching from a perch above or appearing suddenly in any one scene as a passer-by, 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. John Paul Gonalez takes on the role made so famous by the likes of Tony winners Joel Grey and Alan Cumming and brings his own uninhibited, lip-smacking interpretation with a pair of either non-seeing or all-seeing eyes that appear to be missing a set of pupils – his eyes always appearing as large, white, eerie ovals peering toward us and perhaps into the future.
With a singing voice that snaps, sizzles, snarls, and always seduces, his Emcee leaves all restraints behind as he, Rosie (Melissa WolfKlain) and Frenchie (Mary Kalita) repeatedly spread eagle, sing flighty “fiddle-de-dees,” and perform every XXX-rated way of having three-way sex in “Two Ladies.” The Emcee is the voice of repulsive anti-Semitism in his duet with a gorilla girlfriend, Helga (Zoë Swenson-Graham), “If You Could See Her,” (luring us in first with a song silly and whimsical supposedly about tolerance). He is also the citizen-turned-Nazi listening with intrigue to the scratchy recording of a young boy’s singing the Nazi anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” (sung by Samuel Vernick). But when we see in the end whom the evening’s Master of Ceremonies really represents and thus what becomes his fate – along with a host of others we have met throughout the evening – we as audience barely have the wherewithal to remember to provide final applause for an incredibly powerful, affecting set of performances.
With its walls of rough-wood slabs and sliding, wooden doors, the overall set designed by Jacqueline Scott along with the use of trunks and suitcases to stand in when needed as furniture becomes a stark, shocking reminder of the forced journeys and train rides that will be the fate of many we meet during the raucous, riotous evening. The lighting of Michael Oesch can be wildly blaring, bleakly grim, or threateningly startling while the sound designed by Teddy Hulsker fills the air in effects and ensures every Ebb lyric comes through crystal-clear. As heard throughout but particularly in the Second Act’s opening Overture, the Kit Kat Klub band as directed Dave Dobrusky triumphs with keyboard, wind, brass, and drum excellence as the hit parade of popular songs by John Kander ring down upon us from the musicians’ second-level perch.
I have been fortunate to see many outstanding versions of Cabaret, including revivals reprising the starring roles of Messieurs Grey and Cumming in the 1987 and 2014 Broadway revivals as well as SHN tours (2016) and memorable, local productions at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (1996), San Francisco Playhouse (2008), and Hillbarn Theatre (2017). Each time, I am invariably 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” (sung in this production with blood-chilling beauty by Abby Haug as Nazi-favoring Fräulein Kost and by Will Spinghorn, Jr. as the Nazi agent, Ernst Ludwig). No matter what I do, I cannot seem to stop humming for days afterward 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” – with my always wondering 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 Fräulein Schneider and her stirring, haunting voice probing,
“Go on; tell me,
I will listen.
What would you do?
If you were me?”
Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”
Cabaret continues through September 14, 2019 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street. Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli.