Thursday, August 28, 2008

"Cabaret": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

When you think of 'Cabaret,' you see Joel Gray and Liza Minnelli and Michael York. You see huge production numbers and brilliant direction by Bob Fosse on a stage the size of West Berlin.

Ah, but now come to San Francisco Playhouse and grab one of the front row cabaret tables, put in especially for this run of the Kander and Ebb masterpiece, and the show's patina takes on an entirely different hue. You're not looking at the Kit Kat Klub from a safe distance, you're living in it.

'Cabaret,' for all its hi-jinx and loveable misfits, is one of the darkest hits in the history of Broadway. Starting with the frightening "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," which closes Act One, and continuing through the entirety of Act Two, where each character's edge begins to fray, this is a show that could drive anyone deeply into a bottle of Schnapps.

But then we have John Kander's music and Fred Ebb's lyrics, always light and bouncy, with plenty of trombone oom-pahs to support the waltz and polka beats. They not only add to the story but lighten the mood. When you see 'Cabaret' in a small theater you realize a story with this much historical gravitas had to be wrapped in clarinets and comedy or it would be too much to bear.

Bill English's direction makes the most of the small stage. Standouts in the cast are Karen Grassle ("Ma" in the NBC series "Little House on the Prarie"), who gives Frau Schneider's character an elegant desperation; Louis Parnell (the excellent Sancho Panza from the 2006-07 production of "Man from La Mancha" on the same stage), who manages to keep the doomed Jew Herr Schultz hopeful; and the brilliant Kate del Castillo, whose legs may even be longer than Liza Minnelli's, and who turns on every light in the house with her stunning reprise of the final "Cabaret."

Shows evolve. The sexual references that were mostly hetero in the 1972 movie are quite a bit gayer in the 2008 San Francisco production, but they make even more sense this way. Frau Schneider sums it up at the beginning of the show in "So What?" There are Nazis everywhere. Live your life to its fullest. If we do that and still go down in flames -- so what?


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards San Francisco Playhouse's "Cabaret" Three Stars with two delightful Bangles of Praise. The first star is for Kate Del Castillo. It ain't easy trying to be Liza Minnelli without going over the edge. Del Castillo is herself and every motion works. Another star is for the supporting cast, many of whom are also members of the band. Will Springhorn Jr., an excellent Ernst on stage and saxophonist up on the riser; and Tania Johnson, who as Fraulein Kost entertains every sailor she can get her hands on while also managing to leave time to play accordion in the band, are both wonderful. A third star, of course, is for the late Kander and Ebb's perfect songs -- "Money (Makes the World Go 'Round)" will stay in your head for days.

A special Bangle of Praise goes out to Frau Schneider's hair and clothing, for which we thank Costume Designer Valera Coble; another is for the pure chutzpah or mounting this play on this stage. Musicals, which can be excruciating in a small space if done poorly, seem to be turning into a trademark at SF Playhouse. Memo to Bill English: "My Fair Lady" is a very good idea.

San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Wed.-Sat. Through Sept 20


Anonymous said...

First: I wish I could have seen this with you! A small venue would be so much fun!
Second:"Cabaret" is taken from the play "I am a Camera". Also darker and more suggestive of gay characters than the original stage version (and movie).
MANY have said that the original musical version was WAY ahead of its time. The revival (and subsequent tour)was much more in your face and openly gay. The finale of the tour version I saw was devastating (in the sense of "great night of theatre")

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