|John Paul Gonzalez and Dancers Photo: Jessica Palopoli|
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
Until September 14, 2019
By Christine Okon
I saw “Cabaret” about 10 years ago at San Francisco Playhouse in a powerful production that showed how joy could be decimated by encroaching, fascistic powers that be. “Good thing we’re not in Nazi Germany,” I thought naively ruminating on the history lesson of how a whole country changed.
How the world has changed, with our democracy threatened from within as never before. In San Francisco Playhouse’s current production of the musical “Cabaret,” a subtle pulse of apprehension about the growing swell of fascism before WWII beats with the fabulous music about the lives of people in “a city called Berlin in a country called Germany and it was the end of the world.”
|John Paul Gonzalez and Dancers Photo: Jessica Palopoli|
Like a thousand moths beating their wings madly before the light goes out, this “Cabaret” is rich with story, dance, and songs of dark irony and warm poignancy. The scenic design (Jacqueline Scott) transforms the theater into the decadent Kit Kat Klub where the devious-trickster Master of Ceremonies (John Paul Gonzalez) insists that you can “leave your troubles outside” because “in here, life is beautiful...” The Cabaret Girls, Cabaret Boys, and emcee raise the heart rate with "Willkommen" to show they are “happy to see you..” Fosse-inspired choreography by Nicole Helfer and the live music directed by Dave Dobrusky spark every dance number, and all of the dancers are decadently precise in their movements.
|Kit Kat Klub Dancers Photo: Jessica Palopoli|
Clifford Bradshaw (a gentle and convincing Atticus Shaindlin) rides the train into Berlin where he hopes to make his mark as a novelist. He is befriended by the uber-suave, powerful German businessman Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn Jr.); with a smile on his face and ice in his veins, Springhorn embodies a dispassionate character who later turns dangerous.
Ernst takes Cliff under his wing and finds him a place to stay at the run-down boarding house of Fräulein Schneider (Jennie Brick). In many ways, the real story of "Cabaret" is the story of Fräulein Schneider, an ordinary German woman way past any semblance of youth, who must “learn how to settle” for what she gets, bemoaning that “it will all go on if we’re here or not / So who cares? / So what? / So Who Cares?”
|Jennie Blick and Louis Parnell Photo: Jessica Palopoli|
If you wonder how a “whole nation” could support Hitler, consider Fräulein Schneider’s choice between resistance and resilience. Jenny Brick brings a fullness to Fräulein Schneider; even the ill-fitting wig is in character to present a woman just trying to keep it together. Fräulein Schneider is courted by the sweet Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz who woos her with gifts of sweet Italian oranges and other delights. Louis Parnell is a lovable Schultz, and as the two grow in love for each other we root for them as they begin to choose happiness over loneliness.
One of the tenants is Fräulein Kost (a lithe and strong Mary Kalita). She has many visitors, mostly sailors, who are all somehow “related.” Although Schneider clucks disapproval, she must look the other way or else lose the rent money. Kost shows up later as the dangerous arm candy of Ernst as he sports a swastika armband. She sings the rousing nationalist theme “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” as well as a loving “Heirat” but also casually informs Ernst of Herr Schulze’s religion. Things turn ugly and the audience is filled with dread as arms are raised in the Nazi salute before intermission.
At the Kit Kat Klub, Cliff meets Sally Bowles, the British expat headliner of the cabaret show. Melissa WolfKlain creates an energetic Sally with a strong, moving voice that brings a lot of heart to the role. It's exciting to watch her lead the Kit Kat Klub dancers in a knockout, acrobatic "Mein Herr" complete with teetering chairs and floor-slapping. When Sally sings the final song "Cabaret," it is not as a joyful invitation to fun, but a sad, ironic reference to just the opposite. Watching WolfKlain in this scene is like watching a wounded creature dying, robbed of hope, and trapped in a stillborn dream.
Ambiguity and contradictions thread through the story. So many things hang in the balance between male-female, neighbor-enemy, trust-suspicion, poverty-wealth, compliance-power. This "Cabaret" taps into a dark desperation that transcends its time to convey the fear and uncertainty of living on the brink of change.
"Cabaret," 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 St., San Francisco, through September 14, 2019. Info: sfplayhouse.org
Jennie Brick* as Fräulein Schneider
John Paul Gonzalez as Emcee
Carlos Guerrero as Victor
Mary Kalita as Fräulein Kost
Melissa Wolfklain* as Sally Bowles
Zachary Isen as Bobby
Jean-Paul Jones as Texas
Nicole Helfer* as Frenchie
Louis Parnell* as Herr Schultz
Atticus Shaindlin* as Clifford Bradshaw
Will Springhorn Jr.* as Ernst Ludwig
Zoë Swenson-Graham as Helga
Shaun Leslie Thomas as Max
Joe Ayers as Rosie
*Member, Actor's Equity
Susi Damilano DIRECTOR
Dave Dobrusky MUSIC DIRECTOR
Nicole Helfer CHOREOGRAPHER
Jacquelyn Scott SCENIC & PROPERTIES DESIGNER
Abra Berman COSTUME DESIGNER
Michael Oesch LIGHTING DESIGNER
Teddy Hulsker SOUND DESIGNER
Laundra Tyme WIG DESIGNER