Continues through Sept. 20 at SF Playhouse
Lauren English dons a brunette bob wig as Sally Bowles singing the title song in the SF Playhouse production of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. Photos by Zabrina Tipton
Intimate theater puts new spin on an old musical chum
Bay Area audiences have had plenty of opportunities to come to the Cabaret.
The Kander and Ebb musical has been done at TheatreWorks, Shotgun Players and Best of Broadway (the touring version of the 1997 Broadway revival, once with Joely Fisher in the lead, once with Andrea McArdle), to name a few.
Now SF Playhouse is whisking audiences back to Berlin circa 1930 and into the sleazy confines of the Kit Kat Klub. And I do mean confines. SF Playhouse set designer Kim A. Tolman has turned the small theater into a facsimile of an actual cabaret dive. The first two rows of seats have been replaced with small cabaret tables, and the Kit Kat Girls from the show serve drinks before the show actually begins.
There’s as much stage as there is audience, so this is an immersive experience to say the least. Director Bill English turns the show into a musical play. It’s a small cast for a musical (13 people), and most of the cast members serve time the orchestra. For instance, Tania Johnson, who plays Fraulein Kost, is a mad woman on the accordion – she actually makes it sexy in sort of a raunchy-dirty sort of way.
And Brian Yates Sharber(below with the Kit Kat Girls), who gives the role of the Emcee a rather enigmatic spin, wails on a sassy red clarinet. The most actively musical cast member is Will Springhorn Jr., who plays Nazi Ernst Ludwig and then dashes back to the cramped orchestra pit to play various saxophones.
The multiple duties yield strong results. The band (which includes Martin Rojas-Dietrich on piano, and who also plays club owner Max, and drummer Alex Szotak, who looks all of 14, and Kristopher Hauck on trombone) sounds appropriately rag tag and debauched. It sounds like they’re playing music, but their minds are on something much more deviant.
English has chosen to produce a version of Cabaret that isn’t quite the original and definitely isn’t the revival, which includes the songs (“Maybe This Time,” “Mein Herr”) from the movie. This version is closer to the 1987 revival. “The Telephone Song” is gone, as are “Why Should I Care” and “Meeskite,” but a song for the Emcee, “I Don’t Care Much,” is in. Unlike the original production, Cliff is presented as a bisexual (an invention from the movie), and like the revival, the number “Two Ladies” is performed by the Emcee and one actual lady and one chorus boy dressed as a lady. Lewdness follows.
With less focus on Sally Bowles and Clifford Bradshaw, the musical becomes more about senior citizen lovers Fraulein Schneider (Karen Grassle) and Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell), and that’s a good thing. Their love story is far more affected by the rise of the Nazis than is Cliff and Sally’s. The older folks get the good character songs as well – “So What,” “It’ Couldn’t Please Me More,” “Married,” “What Would You Do” – and Grassle, who, in her gray wig, is unrecognizable from her “Little House on the Prairie” days, and Parnell perform them effectively with more attention paid to acting than singing.
Daniel Krueger as Cliff smiles through almost every line in Act 1, which is somewhat disconcerting, but he finds more depth in Act 2. Lauren English as Sally Bowles is anything but Liza Minnelli-esque, and that’s such a relief. Her Sally is a much more original, more affecting creation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her performance of the title song, which eschews the razzle-dazzle bombast and goes for something more tender and more appropriately dramatic.
Barbara Bernardo’s choreography manages to make the most of a somewhat limited performance space – the Kit Kat Klub and Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house are essentially the same place – and is able to keep zinging the audience with pelvic thrusts and the like.
Fans of Cabaret should definitely check out English’s version. He borrows the best bits from productions past but manages to create his own distinct feel that feels organic to the piece itself, which is a blur of show biz dazzle, decadent debauchery, honest feeling, fascistic fear mongering and some really great songs.
Cabaret continues through Sept. 20 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40 regular, $55 for cabaret seating. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information. Note: English leaves the role of Sally Bowles Aug. 23 and is replaced by Kate Del Castillo beginning Aug. 27.