Is director Bill English crazy -- or simply just ambitious enough?
For some reason, the SF Playhouse's Artistic Director decided to rehearse a cast of mostly part-time actors to put on the stage version of John Kander and Fred Ebb's legendary Cabaret in four short weeks. But they've done it. In fact, it's a testament to San Francisco's downtown theatre scene that the Playhouse pulled off an impressive interpretation that spotlights some of the best of this city's talent.
Make no mistake -- producing this play is a serious task. Consider its legacy: over 42 years, five major revivals (two Broadway, three West End), and an Oscar-winning film adaptation that sealed the fame of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, Cabaret has become an institution. Thankfully, the mercilessly short prep time didn't prevent the Playhouse cast and crew from producing a deft, passionate interpretation that brought the sold-out house to its feet.
Set in Berlin in 1930 during the Nazis' rise to power, Cabaret centers itself at the decadent Kit Kat Klub and focuses on two doomed love stories. One of these is between British cabaret performer Sally Bowles (played by the director's daughter Lauren English) and newly arrived young American writer, Cliff Bradshaw (Daniel Krueger); the other is between German boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider (Karen Grassle, who played Ma in the '70s TV series Little House on the Prairie) and elderly Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell). Key to the play is the Emcee character -- played by the inimitable Bryan Yates Sharber -- a one-man Greek chorus who presents the performances at the Kit Kat as prescient commentary on the state of society in Weimar Germany.
English smartly takes his cue from the two '90s London revivals directed by Sam Mendes, which among other things results in a more sexualized take on the book -- one that highlights Cliff's bisexuality and includes boys among the Kit Kat girls. The choreography for the Kit Kat numbers is heaped with polyamorous crotch-grinding and ass-slapping, an extra touch of bawdiness that works well both for its own sake and in contrast to the tenderness of the older couple.
Also like Mendes, English resourcefully uses the musical talents of many of his cast members in the 8-person Kit Kat band, resulting in brilliant moments like Sharber being tossed his clarinet to vamp on eight quick bars in the middle of the tune "Money."
With such a squeezed schedule in front of him, English made crucial casting decisions for the Emcee and Bowles characters. Grey's ownership of the Emcee role in the original Broadway show has made later interpretations by stars like John Stamos and Neil Patrick Harris seem like well-crafted clonings. But rather than mimicking Grey's famously mincing, marionette-ish persona, Sharber projects a brassy, physical, almost lion-like character, and pulls off both lusty song-and-dance numbers and ominous narration with aplomb.
Of course, a successful Cabaret depends on a larger-than-life Sally Bowles, and Lauren English indubitably delivers the goods. As an actor and singer, she's definitely got the personality to fit such a wide-ranging role. Both her wonderful smirk in "Don't Tell Mama" and the genuine hysteria she injects into the tragic title tune speak volumes of her capability, and she's an excellent counterpoint to Krueger's skillful take on the anxious Cliff.
Finally, English's production team has truly sealed Cabaret's success. Tatjana Genser's versatile stage management showed a real instinct for economizing space, while both Valera Coble's costuming (especially the simple black-and-red outfits in "Two Ladies") and Mike Oesch's intuitive lighting design amplified both the show's glitz and its sense of tragic irony.
Yes, on paper, English's scheduling for Cabaret does seem mad. But on stage, it's simply excellent.
Cabaret is playing at the SF Playhouse. For tickets and information visit www.sfplayhouse.org or call 415-677-9596.