Come to the Cabaret at SF Playhouse

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The Master of Ceremonies (John Paul Gonzalez) performs with the Kit Kat Dancers in Cabaret at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman) contemplates her future with Clifford Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) in tumultuous Berlin in the 1930s.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli

San Francisco Playhouse’s Cabaret is, to put it simply, a wow. A big, debauched, delightful wow. Everything in director Susi Damilano’s production just clicks. The look, the feel, the sound of this John Kander and Fred Ebb classic are all securely in place, so this well-constructed musical (Damilano is using the 1998 Broadway revival as her base) can connect directly with its audience.

This is the second time the Playhouse has done Cabaret. Co-founder and artistic director Bill English directed a strong production in 2008 at their tiny former theater on Sutter Street (read my review here). Two of the actors from that production return to the new one in the same roles. Louis Parnell is even better and more sensitive as Herr Schultz, and Will Springhorn Jr. is once again Ernst Ludwig, one of those fine German citizens who turns out to be monster.

Damilano (also a Playhouse co-founder and its producing director) has a much bigger stage to work with than English did 11 years ago, and she and set designer Jacquelyn Scott make the most of it with a two-level structure that shifts easily from being the stage of the Kit Kat Klub (the epitome of early 1930s Berlin decadence) to the rooming house where newly arrived American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) is going to finally find something worth writing about. The stage even has room for a few cabaret tables, so audience members are able to get very up close and personal with the exuberant cast.

There’s not a sour note in this production (not counting the Nazis – Nazis are always the sourest of notes in any form), from the lusty ensemble executing Nicole Helfer’s clever sensual/vulgar choreography to the hot, hot band led by Dave Dobrusky (with a special shout-out to drummer Geneva Harrison for giving the show its driving pulse).

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It’s all top-notch, but the pinnacle here is the star-making performance by Cate Hayman as the Toast of Mayfair, Sally Bowles. Her program bio yields some interesting facts, not the least of which is that she just finished her junior year of college at Carnegie Mellon University. Also of note is that this is her THIRD production of Cabaret in a year (although in the last two she played the aggressively amorous Fräulein Kost). The bio doesn’t mention that Hayman is a Marin native who won a $15,000 Beach Blanket Babylon scholarship in the voice category in 2016. After experiencing this performance, it’s easy to see why Hayman is an award winner. She is polished and assured but vulnerable and fully present. Her Sally is a pragmatist who gauges her debauchery almost as a means of survival. This Sally is less of a kook and more of an artists whose capacity for hurt and damage is more than she can bear. This comes through powerfully in “Maybe This Time,” but then in Act 2, when Hayman dives into the title song, the stage ignites, and we hear the song as if for the first time.

Unlike the 1972 film, which scrambled and chopped the original stage production, Cabaret is not only the story of Sally and Cliff and the Kit Kat Klub shenanigans. It’s also a love story between two older people: landlady Fräulein Schneider (Jennie Brick) and Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Parnell). They get five numbers in the show, which makes them central characters. In addition to dealing with aging, loneliness and romance, they’re also up against the rise of Nazi power and a growing tide of antisemitism. Parnell and Brick are wonderful together, and Brick’s performances of “So What” and the especially daunting “What Would You Do?” are poignant and nuanced. With such strong actors in these roles, the show feels more balanced.

In many productions, the role of the Emcee tends to overwhelm the proceedings, but here, John Paul Gonzalez is less of a show-off and more part of the ensemble. It’s only in Act 2, when he delivers a stunning “I Don’t Care Much” that we get something more from the character than just brash sexuality.

Sadly, it seems a musical about the rise of Fascism will never seem quaint. When, at the end of Act 1, a group of Berliners joins in on the Nazi propaganda tune “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” it feels strangely familiar and more than a little unsettling. Cabaret has been kicking around for more than 50 years now in various forms, and it has never felt so relevant. There’s so much to enjoy in it and yet so much to fear.

Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret continues through Sept. 14 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Razzle dazzle and outrage in Kander and Ebb’s Scottsboro Boys

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The amazing cast of The Scottsboro Boys in flight: (foreground, from left) David Bazemore as Olen Montgomery, Eric Jackson as Clarence Norris, James T. Lane as Ozie Powell and Shavey Brown as Willie Roberson. Below: Clifton Duncan is Haywood Patterson in the Kander and Ebb musical with a book by David Thompson and choreography and direction by Susan Stroman. Photos by Henry DiRocco

The Scottsboro Boys is a musical on crusade. Not for the first time in their storied career, composers John Kander and the late Fred Ebb make some of the worst human traits entertaining all the while championing the underdog and giving splendid voice to those who might be otherwise ignored or forgotten.

The crusade at hand is two-fold: Kander and Ebb, working with book writer David Thompson and choreographer/director Susan Stroman – a copacetic dream team if ever there was one – want to rescue the victims of a particularly ignominious chapter in American history from obscurity. And they want nothing short of exposing the roots of the Civil Rights Movement. They accomplish both goals, and The Scottsboro Boys is as powerful as it is entertaining, and that’s saying a lot on both counts.

The show concludes the season at American Conservatory Theater.

We’ve seen Kander and Ebb working this particular vein before: politics, horror, victimization and good, old razzle-dazzle. We saw it in Cabaret, where singing Nazis made the blood run cold; we saw it in Chicago, where cynicism and celebrity trumped humanity; we saw it in Kiss of the Spider Woman, where revolutionary zeal was squashed but the human spirit is not. This is not to say that Scottsboro is a re-tread in any way. There are echoes of other shows, other songs, but this compact, deeply felt show ratchets up the disturbance factor with its very form.

When the cast assembles for the opening number, “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!,” we are treated to an old-fashioned minstrel show. The set by Beowulf Boritt couldn’t be much simpler: three proscenium arches, slightly askew, and 13 chairs are the basic set-up for every scene, with a few moments of flash here and there. The difference with this minstrel show, even though it has a traditional host, or Interlocutor as he’s called (played by Broadway and TV veteran Hal Linden looking just like Col. Sanders), is that instead of white guys in black face, we have 11 African-American men putting on that disconcertingly cheerful display of minstrelsy. There are even the two traditional minstrel clowns: Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery) and Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph) hamming it up and telling hoary old jokes. Under the sheen of jazz-handy, Al Jolson-y entertainment is something unsettling.

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Perhaps it’s the none-too-subtle woman (the graceful C. Kelly Wright a former staple of the Bay Area theater scene) wandering silently around the stage who turns out to be a whisper from the future about to turn into a scream. Or perhaps it’s the jolly score, almost too jolly. The number “Commencing in Chattanooga” is a dazzling display of Stroman’s choreography as the cast turns those chairs into a train full of hobos circa 1931. But that good cheer quickly turns sour as the black strangers riding that train are accused of fighting with white men and raping two white women. The nine young men, who came to be known as the Scottsboro Boys because Scottsboro, Alabama happened to be where the train was stopped, were imprisoned and, over the course of many years, tried nine times and found guilty every time.

These incessant miscarriages of justice became a cause celebre for Northern agitators, personified by Jewish New York lawyer Samuel Liebowitz (played by Montgomery), who tried – and failed – to get the boys something resembling a fair trial, even after one of the women recanted her accusation.

It’s easy to see why this frustrating, demeaning, infuriating story captured the attention of Kander, Ebb, Stroman and Thompson, but it’s less easy to see why the story needed to be a musical. That’s where the notion of deconstructing the minstrel show – using a racist form of entertainment to tell a story of racism until basic humanity trumps race and storytelling – becomes incredibly potent. Kander and Ebb have a great time playing with minstrel sounds – think “Mammy” meets “Swanee” by way of “All That Jazz” – and the old-timey folk sound of the South (“Southern Days” lulls you then chills you to the bone). They are masters at couching horror in aggressively peppy, in-your-face entertainment. For proof, look no further than the shocking electric chair tap dance in which white prison guards attempt to scare the youngest of the boys, 12-year-old Eugene Williams (Nile Bullock) by electrocuting his pet frog in the electric chair.

If Chicago is a zesty lark with an impeccably choreographed wagging finger, The Scottsboro Boys is a deadly serious attempt (also impeccably choreographed) to make artistic amends for the ruin of nine lives, indeed any life, scarred by racism and/or mob stupidity (that’s a lot of lives). When the excellent Clifton Duncan as Heywood Patterson, the de facto leader of the boys, sings the anthemic “You Can’t Do Me,” all pretense of minstrel show has fallen away (though there remains one big minstrel punch). It’s a plea for human dignity and Heywood’s favorite subject, the truth.

This is challenging theater that often looks and sounds like it should be easy breezy. But this is Kander and Ebb, masters of moving musical theater forward in uncomfortable but ever-delightful ways. It’s a particular and tricky sort of genius, but genius none the less.

[bonus interviews]
Read my interview with John Kander and Susan Stroman for the San Francisco Chronicle here.
Read my interview with David Thompson for Theater Dogs here.

Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys continues through July 22 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$95 (subject to change). Call 415-749-22228 or visit

David Thompson on racism, history and making it all sing

James Taylor at Carnegie Hall
David Thompson is the Tony-nominated book writer of The Scottsboro Boys, one of the final collaborations of the legendary team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. The new musical is part of the American Conservatory Theater season. Below: Hal Linden (center) as the Interlocutor and the cast of The Scottsboro Boys. Photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater

David Thompson is the first to admit that regardless of the show itself, he would do anything to work with John Kander, Fred Ebb and Susan Stroman, three major theater artists with whom he had collaborated on And the World Goes ‘Round, the 1987 revival of Flora the Red Menace and Steel Pier.

“Working with John, Fred and Stro has been an extraordinary gift and privilege,” Thompson says on the phone from his home in Millburn, N.J. “They come from a kind of theater that really understands the craft of telling a story and telling it well. We begin every work session with ‘what if’ and just throw ideas out there. Working with them, they’ve always found a way to inspire me to do better and bigger work – not in a grand way – their talent is so huge that everybody they work with brings the best possible work they can to the table.”

Around 2000, Kander and Ebb, the legendary duo behind Cabaret and Chicago, gathered Thompson and Stroman to start talking about a new show. They knew they wanted to work on a true story, and then they narrowed it down to the tale of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young African-American men accused of raping two white women in Alabama circa 1931. It wasn’t exactly a story, with its astonishing racism and repeated miscarriage of justice, that you would think about turning into a musical. But that’s where the genius of Kander and Ebb come in.

“John and Fred know that you must entertain your audience and tell an interesting story,” Thompson says. “And then you cannot pull back from the way you’ve decided to tell that story. The minute you soften your approach, you cheapen your approach. You might think you’re making it less difficult, but really you’re making it worse.”

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As the creative team began to piece together what would become the musical The Scottsboro Boys, the creative team latched on to the idea of using the form of a minstrel show to tell the story. “We never looked back,” Thompson says. “That allowed us to take a story extremely rooted in racism and mix in an art form also rooted in racism, then smash them together. When you think about it, you have two seminal American forms: the trial and the minstrel show. What Stro has done as director and choreographer is take this form and tip it on its head.”

As for the notion that this was a story that demanded its characters sing, Thompson says these boys, who ranged in age from 12 to 19, are classic musical characters standing up and saying they matter and they have something to say.

“The sing because they will not be marginalized,” he explains. “If you look at what really happened to them, these boys were out riding the rails looking for work. They got caught up in this story and stumbled into the national spotlight. They did fight to make themselves matter even though they were ultimately forgotten. We were interested in that, in bringing them back and making their voices heard.”

Scottsboro was a huge hit in runs at the Vineyard Theatre off Broadway in New York and at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Then the show went to Broadway, where it ran for only 49 performances and managed to pick up 12 Tony Award nominations without winning a single one. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The show, with the original creative team in tow, minus Fred Ebb, who sadly died in 2004, is making several stops at regional theaters around the country, including San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

Regional audiences, unlike the more commercially minded Broadway audience, have been responding enthusiastically to the show. The reason, Thompson says, is that regional audiences arrive as willing participants. “I don’t think audiences demand as much as they can from the theater they see,” he says. “There’s so much more we as artists should be bringing to an audience, and with this show, I think we’re doing that. Broadway can be an extraordinary place for theater full of extraordinary talent. But it’s not the only place theater can live.”

The whole Scottsboro journey has been a wild one, from the death of Ebb to protestors in front of the Broadway theater (apparently the idea of a minstrel show didn’t sit well with them, even though they hadn’t actually seen the show), but through it all, Thompson says the affection among the creative team and a shared belief in telling this true story kept the project moving forward.

“One of the most rewarding moments in anything I’ve ever done came on closing night in New York,” Thompson recalls. “We had been talking to the cast backstage and were late getting to our seats. The audience was seated, and Stro and I were heading to the back of the theater. But John always likes to watch from the audience, so there he was coming down the aisle, trying to be as discreet as possible. But the audience recognized him and started clapping, then stood up. It was unbelievable. They knew they were watching a legend of the American theater just trying to find his sit. For me, it was a friend and a collaborator being recognized, and moments just don’t get any better.”

[bonus interview]
I talked to John Kander and Susan Stroman for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

The Scottsboro Boys continues an extended run through July 22 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$95 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Chita’s jazz…and all that

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Chita Rivera, a true Broadway legend, wowed a capacity audience at the Venetian Room as part of the Bay Area Cabaret Series. Photo by Laura Marie Duncan. Below: Rivera as Anita in West Side Story. Photo by Leo Koribbean. Bottom: Rivera with the songwriting team Kander and Ebb and Liza Minnelli. Photo by Martha Swope.


Last night I fell in love with a 77-year-old Broadway legend.

Actually, I started with a giant crush that developed during a recent phone interview with Chita Rivera (read the story in the San Francisco Chronicle here), and then that crush fell off the deep end when I saw her in person at the recently re-opened Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel as part of the Bay Area Cabaret series.

About 13 years ago, when I was the new theater guy at the Oakland Tribune/ANG Newspapers, I had the chance to interview Rivera in person at the Clift Hotel. She was launching a Broadway-bound autobiographical show called Chita & All That Jazz. On my way to the interview, I passed a flower stand, and on impulse, I bought her a gardenia. I knew that’s not what a seasoned professional would do, and my purpose wasn’t to butter her up – it was more about honoring her extraordinary career. To arrive empty handed felt like…not enough. When I sat down with her and gave her the flower, her eyes welled up, and the interview was wonderful. I got a big hug at the end, and I was happy.

Chita West Side

The problem, a few weeks later, was the show. It was like a big cruise ship entertainment with a glossy spin on Rivera’s storied career. A legend deserves better. She tried again with The Dancer’s Life, another autobiographical show scaled to Broadway size. But it didn’t do as well as people had hoped. That’s when Rivera decided to scale it down for cabaret. She started at Michael Feinstein’s club in New York and has since taken it around the country. She works with a trio (because she thinks it’s sexy to be able to say, “And now I’d like to introduce you to my trio.”) and with bigger bands and orchestras. And the one-on-one aspect of the cabaret arrangement is a wonderful way to experience the Chita magic.

At the 380-seat Venetian, with a show called Chita Rivera: My Broadway, she was incandescent. She walked on stage (from the kitchen, which is how you do it at the Venetian) in a sparkly red dress and matching jacked. With her trio behind her, she launched into a medley of “I Won’t Dance” and “Let Me Sing.” Over the course of the 90-minute show, she would actually dance – maybe not full on choreography but just enough to let us know she’s still got the sharpest, sexiest moves around – and we would have let her sing all night if she had been willing.

Rivera exudes charm but doesn’t actively try to charm. Her expertly structured and scripted show seems casual and off the cuff. She’s warm and funny and dazzling in the most appealing show-biz way. She radiates Broadway pizzazz but comes across as a grounded gal you’d love to pal around with. That’s the kind of combination that let’s you get away with anything.

Not that Rivera takes advantage. We’re in the palm of her hand, but she never coasts. She takes us through highpoints (and a few low) of her career with stops along the way for her mega hits: West Side Story’s “A Boy Like That”/”America,” Sweet Charity’s “Where Am I Going?,” Bye Bye Birdie’s “Put on a Happy Face”/ “How Lovely to Be a Woman”/ “A Lot of Living to Do” and Kiss of the Spider Woman’s “Where You Are”/ “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Before launching into her signature tune, “All that Jazz” from Chicago, Rivera noted that when Rita Moreno played her role of Anita in the movie version of West Side Story and Catherine Zeta Jones played Velma Kelly in the movie of Chicago, both won Oscars. Rivera, a two-time Tony Award winner, said that was OK with her. “I’d rather get there first anyhow.”

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Paying homage to her dear friends John Kander and Fred Ebb, she sang “Love and Love Alone” from the still-gestating musical The Visit and a wistful “I Don’t Remember You” from The Happy Time and “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink in which she starred opposite Liza Minnelli as her daughter.

Rivera’s voice these days is husky but expressive. She swings almost as well as she moves, and her rapport with the adoring audience is cabaret ecstasy.

Reminiscing about her experiences in San Francisco, Rivera said she first visited the city at age 17 when she was in a tour of Call Me Madam starring Elaine Stritch. She’s been back many times and still loves the city even though her tour of Kiss of the Spider Woman wasn’t the hit here that she had imagined. She came here as a well-trained musical theater neophyte and this weekend returned as theater royalty. She made a cabaret room feel like a Broadway stage and we were all up there with her doing high kicks in the spotlight.

That’s a great feeling, and it’s only something you can experience when a performer as talented and generous as Rivera opens her heart and lets you in.

Here’s a treat – Rivera singing Kander and Ebb’s “Love and Love Alone” from The Visit:


Visit Chita Rivera’s official website here.

It’s Curtains for Diablo Theatre Company

Curtains, the final collaboration of legendary John Kander and Fred Ebb (Rupert Holmes came in to finish the show after Ebb’s death), is finally taking a Bay Area bow.

Diablo Theatre Company (formerly Diablo Light Opera Company) opens the show tonight (Feb. 12) at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, where it runs through Feb. 28.

A combination backstage musical meets murder mystery, Curtains won a Tony Award for its Broadway leading man, David Hyde Pierce, who played Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, a Boston homicide detective investigating the death of a musical theater diva.

Here comes the judge

Curtains 02In the DTC production, Oakland’s Tom Reardon plays Cioffi, and that right-side-of-the-law sleuth isn’t too far removed from Reardon’s actual day job: he’s an Alameda County Superior Court judge.

Reardon (right) has performed with a number of Bay Area companies, including Contra Costa Civic Theatre. He previously appeared in DTC productions of Peter Pan (he was Captain Hook in 2007), and last year he was Henry Higgins in the Lamplighters production of My Fair Lady.

So how did the Hon. Tom Reardon make the leap to song-and-dance man?

“For many years I have sung with a small group of friends for charitable events.” Reardon explains. “We sing the Broadway songbook and call ourselves the Broadway Babies. But, it wasn’t until four years ago that I first had a stage role. A friend was in need of men for the ensemble of Anything Goes. I turned up to help him out and somehow was given the lead in the show. And the rest is East Bay community theater history.”

Reardon adds that he’s been “fortunate to have played some great roles in a short time.”

Super conductor

chad runyon 1Former member of the Grammy-winning ensemble Chanticleer, Chad Runyon (left) is playing several roles in DTC’s Curtains. He’s conducting the orchestra and he’s playing Sasha, the Russian conductor for the show-within-the-show, Robin Hood.

And he does it all without leaving the orchestra pit.

Runyon, a Danville resident, spent 10 years exploring some of the greatest choral music ever written with Chanticleer. Since he left the group, he has continued recording and also teaches, conducts and has been vocal director for DTC since the company’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie three years ago.

For Curtains, Runyon has had to brush up his Russian accent.

“I have the added challenge of keeping the ball rolling in the actual show,” he says, “working with our wonderful pit instrumentalists and singing actors. It will be a fun challenge, and the show will be lots of fun for the audience. Sort of a blend of Oklahoma!, Sherlock Holmes and Mel Brooks.”

Here’s the trailer for the show:

“Curtains” Trailer from Diablo Theatre Company on Vimeo.


Diablo Theatre Company Diablo Theatre Company’s Curtains runs Feb. 12-28 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Tickets are $29 to $42. Call 925-943-7469 or visit or

Theater review: `Cabaret’

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Nick Gabriel is the Emcee and Kate Del Castillo is Sally Bowled in the Center Repertory Company production of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. Photos by

Decadence, pineapples, Nazis and prairie oysters: Life is a `Cabaret’ and then some
Think about Broadway in 1966 when Cabaret opened at the Broadhurst Theatre. Also opening that year were Sweet Charity and Mame, which ran alongside such established hits as Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof. With its examination of pre-World War II Germany at its most decadent and out of control, Cabaret was taking mainstream musical theater in a new direction, one marked by elements of old-school musicals, bold forays into politics and cynicism and lusty, scantily clad sexuality.

It’s no wonder that Cabaret has turned out to be such a war horse. With a sturdy foundation in Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical Berlin Stories, which became the basis of John van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera, the musical ran for more than a thousand performances on Broadway and has been steadily revived on stages at all levels of the theater food chain since then. Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning 1972 movie, which preserved the sex, politics and some of the music of the original, proved that this was a story ripe for reinterpretation.

In 1998, Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall proved that Cabaret’s durability could withstand an aggressive, hyper-sexual re-mount (if you’ll pardon the expression), and that revival ran for 2,377 performances, more than twice as long as the original. A whole new generation happily dove into the world of the Kit Kat club, and since then, the show has had the cachet of a recently minted hit.

Last year around this time, the SF Playhouse mounted a stirring version of Cabaret in its tiny San Francisco theater, and this summer, it’s Walnut Creek’s Center Repertory Company inviting us to put down the knitting, the book and the broom and come to the cabaret, old chum.

Director Mindy Cooper, choreographer Joe Bowerman and musical director Brandon Adams don’t drastically re-invent the musical, but they make smart choices – picking the best of previous versions and incorporating some original ideas – to create an exhilarating show with sizzle aplenty.

Nick Gabriel as the Emcee captures the essence of this production by taking the sweet playfulness of Joel Grey, originator of the role, with the more beguilingly perverse aspects of Alan Cumming’s version in the most recent Broadway revival.

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Kate Del Castillo as songstress Sally Bowles offers a refreshingly bold take on a familiar character. Instead of a wounded, yet resilient, hedonist, Del Castillo gives us a bitter beauty. Sure, this Sally has her share of wounds, but she’s angry, and that comes through loud and clear in her in-your-face version of “Mein Herr” and her full-throttle rendition of the title song. Even her “Maybe This Time,” sung as she contemplates an abortion, has a forcefulness that shields a broken heart with ferocity.

Unlike the movie, the show has two couples at its center. We get Sally and American writer Cliff (Jeffrey Draper, right, with John-Elliott Kirk) alongside landlady Fraulein Schneider (Milissa Carey) and her paramour/tenant, Herr Schultz (Jarion Monroe), a Jewish fruit vendor. What’s nice about Cooper’s production is that she gives equal dramatic weight to both couples. While Cliff and Sally get the showier dramatics, the older couple gets the show’s most touching songs: “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married.”

Carey, who also juices up her solos “So What?” and “What Would You Do?” and Monroe have effective chemistry, as do Del Castillo and Draper, who mercifully gives Cliff a pulse and makes him more guileless than innocent or naïve.

While certain ensemble numbers (“Don’t Tell Mama,” “Money,” “Two Ladies”) are fun and frothy, others, most notably Gabriel’s “If You Could See Her” and the full-company reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” have the unsettling edge that makes Cabaret much more of a drama than a musical comedy.

Robert Broadfoot’s set design is all about suitcases. Lit by Kurt Landisman, they hang in rows from the back of the stage (where the superb 10-piece orchestra, which includes some cast members, plays from a lofty perch). On-stage trunks open to become passenger car benches or fruit stands. The effect initially seems overpowering and telegraphs the end of the play (indeed the end of decadent Weimar Republic Germany in the face of Nazi rule), but when the end finally comes, even more suitcases, along with effective use of chain-link fencing, packs a surprising wallop.


Center Rep’s Cabaret continues through June 27 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Tickets are $37-$41. Call 925-943-7469 or visit for information.

Mazzie and Danieley toast New Year with SF Symphony

Broadway’s first couple, Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, had a pretty good 2008.

He had a long run in the final Kander and Ebb musical, Curtains, and she was the Lady of the Lake in Monty Python’s Spamalot. They also criss-crossed the country doing concerts together, and he recently released his album Jason Danieley and the Frontier Heroes.

The big news this year, though, according to Mazzie: “We bought a country house!”

The couple, which now splits time between Manhattan and the new country home in the Berkshires, will end the year in San Francisco with a pair of New Year’s concerts with the San Francisco Symphony – one New Year’s Eve and one New Year’s Day.

Mazzie and Danieley head into the New Year with projects aplenty, even though Broadway seems to be dimming because of the disastrous economy.

They’ll tour Florida with the Boston Pops Orchestra, perform the Kennedy Center in February and they’ll do a joint gig at Feinstein’s in March. So far, though, no Broadway shows lined up.

“In this economy, shows’ advances are not good and producers are cutting their losses and gearing up for, hopefully, a spring season that will bring some stuff in,” Mazzie says. “I have such great confidence in our new president. I’m beyond joyous about that. I know it’s going to be tough going with this economy, but he’ll be able to turn it around and it will affect everybody. It’s all cyclical. People are still going to go see hit shows. People still want entertainment. I know Broadway is going to suffer, but I’m not all doom and gloom.”

Danieley adds that in a recession, people still value entertainment.

“They just find less expensive forms of entertainment,” he says. “They want to get away from CNN and MSNBC and experience some Gershwin or something of substance. This country went through a depression, and look what the music of that time did for them. It put salve on the wounds of economic scraped knees.”

In their concerts with the SF Symphony, Mazzie and Danieley will perform material from their CD, Opposite You, which is a mix of standards and show tunes. He’ll debut a new arrangement of one of is songs from “Curtains,” “I Miss the Music,” and she’ll incorporate some tunes from her cabaret show, Yes! It’s Today! a revue of songs by Jerry Herman and Kander and Ebb.

Ask the couple what they listen to at home, and you get a steady stream of overlapping names: k.d. lang, Annie Lennox, Shawn Colvin, Alison Krauss, Bonnie Raitt, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Rufus Wainwright and James Taylor.

“What I love about Rufus,” Danieley says, “is that he combines his own compositions with covers and standards and makes them his own. In that similar style, we like to approach music we love, take in all that’s going on with the sound of music today, and kind of brush them off and make them a little more contemporary, a little more vital.”

That’s certainly what Danieley has done with his album, Jason Danieley and the Frontier Heroes, a collection of country, folk, Americana sounds that borrow heavily from his childhood in St. Louis, where he played music with his family in their basement.

“My grandma played piano, my mom played the organ, my grandpa played washtub bass,” Danieley says. “We really had a back porch Americana sound. These are my roots and I just really wanted to share this music.”

The album is dedicated to Danieley’s grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. In her memory, 20 percent of the profit from each CD goes to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Making music, whether it’s from Broadway, pop, the past or the present, never ceases to enthrall Mazzie and Danieley, even though they’ve been doing it for many years – the last 10 as man and wife.

“I love that wherever you listen to music, whether in a symphony hall or at the Blue Note listening to Jane Monheit, the people in the room are having these experiences that get their creative juices flowing and sends them out into the world with a changed outlook. That’s what I love about live performance – it’s a shared experience, and this thing that is created – music – is something we all fee. It is a gift to be part of it.”


The San Francisco Symphony’s New Year’s Eve Gala featuring Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley is at 9 p.m. Dec. 31 at Davies Symphony Hall. Event includes party favors, complimentary champagne, savories and desserts following the concert as well as dancing in the lobby and a midnight cascade of balloons. Tickets are $110-$180.

The New Year’s Day Cabaret Concert is at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20-$90

Call 415-864-6000 or visit

Review: `Cabaret’

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 for information. Note: English leaves the role of Sally Bowles Aug. 23 and is replaced by Kate Del Castillo beginning Aug. 27.

Tours, tours everywhere

We still don’t know what’s in store for the new SHN/Best of Broadway season (announcement to be made soon). But news out of New York is that there are all kinds of tours heading out on the road that may or may not be coming San Francisco way.

One of those tours is Disney’s Mary Poppins. And the news there is that original Broadway stars Ashley Brown (Mary) and Gavin Lee (Bert the chimney sweep — also from the London cast) will head out on tour with the show. How rare it is to get the original Broadway stars (though these aren’t exactly mega-watt stars) to hit the road. There’s no San Francisco date, but Mary Poppins does have a date at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, so at least it will be within shouting distance.

Also heading out on tour is Curtains, the final Kander and Ebb musical (with an assist from Rupert Holmes after Ebb died). This is the theater-loving whodunit that earned David Hyde Pierce his best actor Tony Award. The Broadway production closes next month and heads out on tour in the Fall of ’09., which begs the question: will anyone remember the show by then?

Finally, this isn’t really a tour, but it may be coming to a town near you.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent is finally closing after 12 years on Sept. 7, and now a new business venture from Sony Pictures Releasing called The Hot Ticket, will film the final performance and broadcast it to movie theaters around the country (much like what the Metropolitan Opera is doing, though this sounds like it won’t be live, which is a bummer).

Screening dates in the U.S. and in Canada have yet to be announced, although Hot Ticket presentations will be shown in strictly limited engagements in 2K and 4K digital theatres.

In a statement Sony Pictures Releasing president Roy Bruer said, “Going to your favorite theater doesn’t mean just going to the movies anymore. Audiences everywhere enjoy sharing special events with their friends and family in public places – it’s just not the same at home. Our mandate will be to identify the one-of-a-kind and sold-out events that people around the country most want to see and we will work to present them to audiences everywhere. With the very best in special event programming and state-of-the-art digital projection and sound in theaters, The Hot Ticket will offer the kind of unparalleled, access that will make these events memorable viewing experiences.”

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