The Sexy Salad Days: ‘Cabaret’ at SF Playhouse


“The best way to keep something bad from happening is to see it ahead of time, and you can’t see it if you refuse to face the possibility.”
– William S. Burroughs, interviewing Led Zeppelin for Crawdaddy magazine (June 1975)

It’s true what they say: it’s almost impossible to recognize the halcyon days as they occur. That’s often because those days make one so comfortable that they tend to fall into… perhaps not complacency, but certainly overdeveloped sense of security. One should most certainly enjoy the simple times – the cliché of old-timers chastising youngsters for the latter not knowing how good they have it comes from said old-timers forgetting that the whole point was for the youngsters to have it good – but one must also prepare for contingencies, so as to not prematurely shorten the good times. Hindsight may be 20/20, but you can still prepare for the future.

For instance, I remember in early-2009 when our fair country finally took a step forward and inaugurated its first Black president. So drunk on their victory were (White) Democrats that they had claimed we were living in a “post-racial America”. I, on the other hand, read this telling Newsweek article released shortly after the inauguration. It was a sign of things to come: murders by cops; burnings of synagogues; beatings (or worse) of Muslims; and so on – all because they didn’t like the sight of a Black man in the highest office in the land. We saw the signs then, but those who could should have acted didn’t.

I was reminded of that Newsweek article during the opening night of SF Playhouse’s new production of Cabaret (the 1998 version). Now matter how much antagony is directed towards Herr Schultz – anti-Semitic slurs, bricks through windows, loss of business – the old man clings to the false hope that this, too, shall pass. He believes the only difference between he and his swastika-wearing neighbors is difference in political ideologies. He honestly believes that it couldn’t possibly get any worse. It’s sad to know how wrong he’ll be.

It’s odd for me to realize that I’ve never seen Cabaret live before. I’ve seen the film and I’ve even taken a part in a reading of I am a Camera, its chief inspiration, but I’ve never seen the musical proper on stage. My former colleague Corinne Proctor played Sally Bowles in a production years ago, but I missed out on it due to public transport snafus. (Interestingly, the now Florida-based Corinne is credited in this production as dramaturg.) And I’ll say this for the SF Playhouse: they’ve set a damn-good standard for whenever I see the show again.

The show is so well-known that stating its plot seems redundant. In fact, I’m tempted to call it “the prototypical Moulin Rouge”, except for the fact that the latter just used an historical setting and figure without providing context to them. Cabaret is about not seeing the coming tide. Clifford Bradshaw (an amiable Atticus Shaindlin) voices objections, but his sensibilities were as far removed from Nazism already. When colleague Ernst (a deceptively agreeable Will Springhorn) removes his over coat to reveal his blood-flag armband, its shocks both us and Clifford because we know all for which it stands. But to everyone else, it’s dismissed as no more important than one being Catholic or Protestant. If only they knew – but they didn’t.

Susi Damilano’s greatest achievement in this production is to never let the coming danger of the Third Reich fall away too far. As bawdy and hilarious as the revelry gets, Nazism hangs above like the Sword of Damocles. The final chilling image is Jacquelyn Scott’s wooden set opening so that the ensemble – adorned in concentration camp stripes – can exit into a white-lit oblivion.

And let me immediately apologize for comparing Cabaret to Moulin Rouge, for while the former was clearly an influence on the latter, Baz Luhrmann made the mistake of turning his lead into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Sally is no pixie, and as played by Cate Hayman, she also isn’t bound by Liza Minnelli’s iconic performance. Sally is a role so often imitated that it’s easy to get wrong. Hayman and Damilno’s first wise choice is to stick with Hayman’s natural blonde curls. The second is to remember that Sally personifies the story itself hilariously forthcoming, but equally cruel when she doesn’t get her way. Not out of malice, but because life has taught her to expect the sad ending. If Hayman’s heartbreaking rendition of “Maybe This Time” (in my opinion, the real key song of the show) doesn’t get you a little misty-eyed, I suggest you immediately check your pulse.

Yet, the show isn’t perfect. As usual, Damilano is a master at pulling strong performances from her talented cast, but she’s also tends to draw out running times quite often. This show doesn’t have as much “air” between the actors’ lines as past shows she’s done, but the first act still ran over an hour-30. There are also a few quiet moments that leave the stage more empty than necessary. I’m thinking of numbers like “So What?”. Perhaps Fräulein Schneider (played to salty and sweet perfection by Jennie Brick) doesn’t need a fully-choreographed dance, but it would have been nice to see more than “her on one side, Clifford on the other”. And there were moments when the upstage action behind the screen unnecessarily drew focus away from the main action.

Speaking of Jacquelyn Scott’s great set, it reminded me of Hamilton’s similar wood stage at first glance. That’s isn’t a knock against it, just a first impression. The first noticeable differences are Scott’s addition of spiral metal staircases on either side, with the live band secured behind a screen on the upper level. The sign reading “Kit Kat Klub” hangs from roof, with individual bulbs in each letter signaling that the club isn’t exactly swimming in cash. On the far-left and -right are cocktail tables with candles and rotary phones, set up for the on-stage audience members (similar to Shotgun’s production of Arcadia from last year). Add to this the aforementioned hidden opening at the climax – assisted by Theodore Hulsker’s sounds and Michael Oescher’s lights – and holds its verisimilitude very well.

And I’d be remiss not to mention the rest of the excellent cast. Though John Gonzalez doesn’t have the strongest voice, he has the right level of showmanship to bring the Emcee to life. He owns Nicole Helfer’s choreography and every not Dave Dobrusky’s band bellows out. One of the best stand-outs for me was Abby Haug as Fräulein Kost. Haug is good at making Kost sympathetic at her most unapologetic, as well as being cold during her inevitable turn. One is tempted to hate the character for “picking the winning side”, but delighted to see an actor pull it off with skill.

I could go over the entire ensemble, but I’d be writing all day.

Like the Newsweek piece above, I’m reminded of another article published shortly after an inauguration. It’s from January 2017, reporting on how the newly-inaugurated Trump Administration deliberately removed all mention of the Jews from their Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. Yes, really. That’s the sort of thing that the earlier article was warning us about. Thankfully, it isn’t too late to change things (we hope), but damage has been done.

Cabaret remains one of the best shows about living in denial until the truth crashes head-on into you. The SF Playhouse serves this well with a delightfully lavish production. A few directorial choices take the shine off, but this is a classic show that done specifically in the “now”.

GRADE:                                                                                B-

Cabaret is scheduled to run until the 14th of September at the San Francisco Playhouse.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Categories: Theatre

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