San Francisco Playhouse meets high demands of ‘Cabaret’

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Electrifying, sensual and darkly political, “Cabaret” is well known for its star-studded design and execution on both stage and screen. Originally orchestrated in 1966 by internationally acclaimed musical duo Kander and Ebb and turned into a film directed by Bob Fosse in 1972, this winner of multiple Tony Awards — the coiner of the iconic Broadway “jazz hands” — is no low-bar production.

On July 3, San Francisco Playhouse’s rendition did justice to this masterful production with strong individual performances from lead actors, each of whom delivered on the unique artistic and historical nuances that “Cabaret” demands.

“Cabaret” follows Cliff Bradshaw, a young American writer (played here by the humorous and engaging Atticus Shaindlin). Cliff begins his exploration of late-1930s Germany with a dive into the seedy, decadent world of the Kit Kat Klub, overseen by the hypersexual, ever-present Master of Ceremonies (John Paul Gonzalez).

As the show’s unreliable guide and narrator, Gonzalez exudes an erotic and commanding stage presence that electrifies “Cabaret” throughout. He launches the production by taking a deep, sensual breath and demanding that the audience accept the terrifyingly appealing invitation: “Leave your troubles outside.” Just like Cliff, the crowd must consciously resist the Master of Ceremonies’ sly smile and the easy, flashy allure of “Cabaret” long enough to register the show’s lie that “in here, life is beautiful.”

Not long after, wildly charming Kit Kat Klub performer Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman) succeeds in capturing Cliff’s affections. A Bay Area local and Carnegie Mellon University student, Hayman is the heart and soul of the Playhouse’s raunchy and poignant world of “Cabaret.” Her slow vibrato ripples and pools throughout the theater in each of her songs, commanding every drop of attention from her audience; her belting of “Maybe This Time” — a song in which Sally allows herself to imagine a stable, happy, love-filled future for herself — is particularly spellbinding.

As old-fashioned, kind-hearted elderly woman Fräulein Schneider and her Jewish tenant Herr Schultz, Jennie Brick and Louis Parnell deliver some of the most heart-wrenching moments in the show. The endearing and persistent Schultz “overwhelms,” in Schneider’s words, the practical Fräulein’s reservations about love and dependence. They sing together about a pineapple, momentarily honoring one historic response to Germany’s rising polarization and bigotry — stubborn optimism and naiveté.

Kit Kat Klub number “Money” stands out in the Playhouse’s rendition for its striking costume choices and choreography. Torn white T-shirts and hole-filled, thigh-high white socks give the usually sultry and smirking Klub dancers an air of startlingly innocent, primal desperation. Ensemble members claw and jerk themselves across the stage, wildly clutching each other and themselves. Meanwhile, Gonzalez’s fast-paced solo lines overlap with the dancers’ chant of “When hunger comes to rap, rat-a-tat rat-a-tat at the window … See how love flies out the door.”

This production’s set is perfectly designed for the smooth transitions crucial to a show that switches between two drastically different worlds — the gritty Kit Kat Klub and the Fräulein’s old-fashioned rooms for rent. Designed by Jacquelyn Scott, the stage is dominated by a two-story wooden structure with wrought-iron winding staircases wrapping around either side. Schneider’s sepia-lit world only utilizes the bottom half, but when red light soaks the stage, Kit Kat Klub dancers slink all around the upper level. This allows Schneider’s world to literally become infiltrated as the influence of the all-powerful, overseeing Master of Ceremonies becomes increasingly sinister and militaristic throughout the musical.

In short, old chum, San Francisco Playhouse’s cast brings unique individual nuance to the already iconic and unbeatable music and choreography of “Cabaret” — as Sally cries, “Come to the Cabaret!”

“Cabaret” is playing at San Francisco Playhouse through Sept. 14.

Contact Daryanna Lancet at [email protected].