Entertainment » Theatre

Cabaret

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jul 9, 2019
Atticus Shaindlin and Cate Haynes in "Cabaret," at the SF Playhouse through September 14
Atticus Shaindlin and Cate Haynes in "Cabaret," at the SF Playhouse through September 14  

The party is over in "Cabaret" at SF Playhouse, but you've got to wonder whether or not this seminal musical is a little late on the scene itself these days.

This deceptively zippy tale of foreigners lost in the decadent underbelly of Weimar Germany during the rise of the Nazis opened on Broadway in 1966. But this production, directed by SF Playhouse cofounder Susi Damilano, takes after the seedy, brazen '90s revivals, which took more risks with the Nazi imagery, allusions to the Holocaust, and seedy musical interludes.

Babyfaced leading man Atticus Shaindlin plays Cliff, an expat American writer (what else?) who hopes a stay in Berlin will bust his writer's block.

Within seconds of the curtain rising this characterization seems dated, because who in their right minds could care about yet another self-important American man struggling with a 20th century novel? If the stakes of "Cabaret" are nothing more than whether another "lost generation" autobiography lives or dies then we're all in deep trouble here.

Luckily the role enjoys good casting, if nothing else. Shaindlin looks like everyone else onstage could bite him in half at any minute, and also very much like he's not aware of this.

While visiting a scandalous night club — the cabaret of the title — Cliff falls in with Sally, an English showgirl down on her luck (the shockingly forceful Cate Haynes). The off-again, off-again non-romance between the pair remains one of "Cabaret"'s strangest assets. Haynes and Shaindlin don't have a beaker-full of sexual chemistry between them, but neither are they really supposed to, despite the plot-driven necessity of a coupling.

Cliff also befriends a smooth-talking political organizer, Ernst (the statuesque Will Springhorn Jr., from last year's "An Entemologist's Love Story"), who ends up drawing him into dangers of Germany's seething nationalist unrest.

The conflict between Ernst and Cliff provides the lynchpin of the show's thesis, the question of what happens when everyday people ignore "politics" — a word always used dismissively in "Cabaret" — in favor of personal dramas, meanwhile the castle is crumbling around them in real time.

Yeah, it's not hard to see why anyone would want to stage "Cabaret" in today's political environment, or why a director like Damilano favors versions of the show that wield the Nazi imagery in more flagrant and intentionally upsetting ways. (By contrast, City Lights in San Jose opens a 60s-esque "Cabaret" in a few weeks.)

At the same time, we're left to wonder whether "Cabaret" itself wasn't always a naive way of exploring this history, better suited to a time when previous generations could assume that nationalist far-right politics were safely relegated to the past.

Though the politics of "Cabaret" seem frighteningly contemporary, no modern playwright or composer would dance around the topic this way for fear of seeming tone-deaf or out of touch.

Nevertheless, as sheer musical drama Damilano's show is a smash, particularly in light of Haynes' overwhelming presence. The pure, uncomplicated emotion of her vocals in numbers like the soulful "Maybe This Time" or the devastating "Cabaret" border on transformative.

The sets by Jacquelyn Scott take a welcome, minimal approach, with hardly any movement needed for scene changes (awkward transitions were a bugbear for a lot of past SF Playhouse musicals) and most of the space left open for the actors to work in.

The ordinariness of all the visible plywood yields mixed results though. When accentuated (or just disguised) by Michael Oesch's lighting, the backdrop is an effective canvas for the raunchy stage routines and powerhouse solos. But when more plainly visible, the design sometimes minimizes the scene and makes the actors work a little bit harder to counter it.

John Paul Gonzalez takes center stage in the show's trademark Master of Ceremonies role. He's wry and weird and tragic in a misleading way, but at first the casting seems off, since Gonzalez does not appear to have a particularly powerful voice in numbers like "Wilkommen" and "If You Could See Her." He mostly talks his way through the lyrics.

But he finally breaks out some truly sterling notes of his own with his last big number, "I Don't Care Much," which brings the house down and leaves the audience, for a moment, unsure exactly what it's just been through, but certain that the experience will linger.

"Cabaret" plays through September 14 at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, California. For tickets and information, call 415-677-9596 or visit The SF Playhouse website.

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