Friday, July 5, 2019

"Cabaret" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

As Artistic Director Bill English said after the Wednesday night premiere, '''Cabaret,' in 2019, hits a lot harder than it used to." We all felt it. San Francisco Playhouse's brilliant new production of Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb's classic "Cabaret," which seemed dark enough when it premiered in the Lyndon Johnson year of 1966, now feels frighteningly prophetic in the age of Donald Trump. What begins as a most tuneful homage to counter-culturalism and cabaret life in Berlin in the 1930s turns quickly into something far more sinister. From the last line of Act Two's "If You Could See Her" through "What Would You Do?," "I Don't Care Much" and on to the chilling reprise of "Cabaret," we understand the potential danger of being different. Fear triumphs far easier than tolerance. As Joseph Goebbels said in 1939, in a sentiment that appears to be repeated daily today, "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

Fortunately, great art transcends generations. Susi Damilano's direction and a spectacular ensemble cast bring us one of the finest musical evenings we have experienced in years. Viewers are in for a rare treat. 

It doesn't hurt that Cate Hayman's Sally Bowles is world-class. Her every gesture gives us anger as well as vulnerability. She has the voice to bring life to these often-performed songs but also the stage presence to make us feel as well as hear every note and every nuance. We have seen many Sally Bowleses in our time. Cate Hayman is the equal of any.

The toughest role in Cabaret is the Joel Gray role, the Master of Ceremonies. Gray made it his and has challenged two generations of actors to match him. John Paul Gonzales doesn't try. His Master of Ceremonies is far raunchier, sometimes to excess, but we trust and despair with him. 

Other standout roles are turned in by both Jennie Brick (whose performance in SFP's "Barbecue" we still remember) as Frau Schneider, and Louis Parnell as Herr Schultz. Their lovely, understated romance makes sense until it doesn't and we are forced to join them in plummeting to reality. Kander and Ebb wrote "What Would You Do?" more than fifty years ago but here we are again, pondering with discomfort as Frau Schneider sings, forced to ask ourselves the same question.

We loved Atticus Shaindlin as Clifford Bradshaw, a role often dumbed down to a bumbling American. Shaindlin also has a lovely tenor, in a role that unfortunately does not call for much singing. Will Springhorn, Jr. makes us want to punch out Ernst Ludwig, which is precisely the point.

Choreography is often difficult for SFP, due to limited space, but not this time. The dance sequences light up the theater. Dave Dobrusky's band is first-class. Costumes and lighting are too.

There are no sour notes here. This summer you must jump on the Kable Kar and hurry to the Kit Kat Klub to see "Cabaret."

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Cabaret" Four Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Story, acting, direction and production each earn one star. The Bangle of Praise could be for many outstanding moments, but we are still amazed at how Cate Hayman seemed to be balancing on one toe while crouching on a chair singing "Mein Herr." Perhaps that was Fake News? A pulley? Someone holding her hip? We don't think so. The Bangle stands.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street (Second floor of Kensington Park Hotel), San Francisco
Through September 14

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