The Emcee cuts a seductive figure, sleekly entering and exiting space with flashes of merriment, oozing sensuality at every turn. He is unapologetically fierce, with a delicious smile and a costume that blatantly showcases every asset he has, welcoming anyone and everyone into his club.
Compare those first few encounters the audience has with the Emcee, and compare that to later, when the safety of the club is compromised, a place where gentle calm used to live, replaced by destruction driven by xenophobia and homophobia.
Now compare that even further to the times we live in now. A man, who not long ago seeming to be a carnival barker, saying things so outlandish that he couldn’t possibly be serious. Yet he is a very serious candidate for the highest office in the land, and those who listen and laud his whims are serious as well.
It’s hard to watch the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of “Cabaret,” running through SHNSF, and not find similarities left and right. The pain of World War II, even though it was at its apex more than 70 years ago, is still fresh, mainly because the times we live in now are home to some stunning and sublime parallels, with the possibility of continuing the ascent of anxiety long into the future.
That is not to say the production is all political stresses. It is not at all. Much of it is decadent fun. What “Cabaret” has most going for it is its decadence, the invitation to taste something a little bit different, because it just might be a little bit sweeter and a little more dangerous.
Composer duo John Kander and Fred Ebb have made their riches on the cynical. With their musical “Chicago,” a dark expose of the trappings of macabre celebrity status, “Cabaret” continues to fill the niche of a dark, seductive underworld; one where rules know no bounds and decorum is stretched at every turn. Joe Masteroff’s book shapes this world nicely.
The story follows the straight-laced Cliff Bradshaw (Lee Aaron Rosen), an American renting a room in Berlin for the purposes of penning a new novel, but a man also getting a bit caught up in the black market underworld. Bradshaw is bisexual, yet falls deeply in love with Fräulein Sally Bowles (a solid turn by Andrea Goss), a performer who has a tenuous relationship with management at the Kit Kat Klub.
The Kit Kat is led by the Emcee (a gleeful and pathos-driven performance by Randy Harrison), a sexually charged, seductive performer who presides over all of the action, watching the story unfold throughout the stage using both levels to great effect. It is his steady hand through which the audience experiences the story, a character brought to the stage most famously by Joel Grey and Alan Cumming.
While performers sing and dance throughout the seediness of the nightclub, the Nazi party slowly becomes a stronger presence, painfully compromising the warm relationship of Fräulein Schneider (an organic Shannon Cochran) and Herr Schultz (charming and truthful Mark Nelson).
The original direction by Sam Mendes, co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall, is full of theatricality and Brechtian touches, starting well before the first note is brought forth. Actors waste no time, already in the theatre stretching out on stage before the house opens. Unfortunately, because people nowadays feel they have the God-given right to photograph everything, actors are adept at shutting that nonsense down while staying in character.
The other piece that comes together with ferocity is the band, many performers doubling as orchestra members who sit high upon the upper level on Robert Brill’s scaled down yet highly versatile set.
Kander and Ebb’s score is voluptuous and inspired, with some solid renditions of classic tunes. The opening number “Willkommen” sets the mood, with plenty of hilarity in introducing some of the lovely ladies who will be dancing for us. While the audience motivates some of those dancers, others are more driven by scowls and cigarettes, puffing away as the choreo gets a little more intense.
Two wonderful songs, “Maybe this Time” and “Cabaret” were handled beautifully by Goss, and “It Couldn’t Please Me More (The Pineapple Song) is filled with charm by Nelson and Cochran.
While characters such as Sally Bowles and Bradshaw have a compelling relationship, although being a little too plasticky for my taste, it is the relationship of Schneider and Schultz that is loaded with truth and honesty, and ultimately, tragic foreboding. From their charming aforementioned duet in to his heartbreaking defiance that nothing bad can happen to him as a German, it is this arc that keeps the story grounded in truth and strength.
What is profound, assisted mightily by the costume design of William Ivey Long, is how certain costume pieces have a visceral shock attached to them. At the end of each of the two acts, a costume takes center stage, with the end of the show’s costume reaching a jarring conclusion. It is hard to imagine something like that happening again. But what “Cabaret” teaches us is that, even though things are hard to imagine, it doesn’t make them impossible.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SHNSF presents Roundabout Theatre Company’s “Cabaret”
Book by Joe Masteroff
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Co-directed and Choreographed by Rob Marshall
Directed by Sam Mendes
The Word: A solid, sleek and seductive production of a Broadway classic
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through July 17th
The Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
Tickets range from $50 – $212
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com
For more information on the production, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org