Certain geopolitical moments have a way of casting new light on older works of theater, and giving them a prescience they may not have had even ten or fifteen years ago. That is likely what SF Playhouse was banking on in putting Cabaret in its current season.
The Kander and Ebb musical from 1966 has seen multiple iterations over the decades — the story itself, based on Christopher Isherwood's late 1930s novellas called The Berlin Stories, were first adapted into a play and a film called I Am a Camera, before getting new life as Cabaret. Notably it garnered Oscars for director Bob Fosse and stars Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in its 1972 film version, and has been revived on stage in New York and London over a half dozen times since. The 1993 Sam Mendes-directed revival in London, which ultimately ended up playing for years at Studio 54 in New York, earned Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Alan Cumming as the Emcee. The Fosse-inspired choreography by Rob Marshall earned him a Tony nomination and launched a career that included directing the Oscar-winning 2002 film adaptation of Chicago. Mendes, Marshall, and Cumming all reunited for a reprise-revival of Cabaret at Studio 54 in 2014-2015, initially with Michelle Williams in her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles.
But it wasn't until the racially charged and xenophobic rhetoric of the 2016 election, and the brazen anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville the following year (and recent synagogue shootings around the country), that the story of Cabaret has taken on new and timelier importance.
SF Playhouse has created a pared-down version of the Sam Mendes production, with choreography by Nicole Helfer that takes much inspiration from Fosse and Marshall. The set by Jacquelyn Scott cleverly uses the compact proscenium of the space to create a bi-level space that doubles as nightclub and boarding house, with several cabaret-style tables for audience members in each wing. And director Susi Damilano has done a masterful job adapting the show to the environment as well.
Anchoring this production are two performers who have done this show more than once in the last year: Atticus Shaindlin, who is reprising the role of Clifford Bradshaw that he played last year at The Refuge at Z Space; and the brilliant Cate Hayman as Sally Bowles, who also appeared in The Refuge's production as Fraulein Kost. Hayman is especially magnetic and nuanced playing Sally, and she brings down the house in the numbers "Don't Tell Mama," "Maybe This Time," and the final iteration of "Cabaret." Both Shaindlin and Hayman are rising seniors in the musical theater program at Carnegie Mellon University.
As the Emcee, John Paul Gonzalez does fine if not as sure-footed work, and in moments when the audience ought to be transfixed by him, focus is pulled by other members of the ensemble.
The ensemble, meanwhile, is polished and tight tackling all of Helfer's choreography. And supporting performances by Abby Haug as Fraulein Kost and Jennie Brick as Fraulein Schneider are both solid and moving.
The show's prescience is hard to overstate given how much the concept of fascism and state-sponsored prejudices have become a part of the national dialogue in the last three years. In the moments in the show when Fraulein Schneider and her would-be beau Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell) are in denial about the Nazi regime, dismissing their anti-Semitic rhetoric as "just politics," it's hard not to hear chilling echoes in our current time.
And while Cabaret is on the one hand an undeniably entertaining, dazzlingly, and seemingly formulaic period piece on the one hand, it has always carried a shroud of sinister caution with it. The dark finale of the Mendes version — which is repeated here, explicitly showing most of the ensemble being marched off to concentration camps — was unimaginable to Isherwood when he first wrote his novellas. But it would only be a few years before his nostalgic tale about a nightclub in Weimar Berlin would take on entirely new meaning, much as it continues to do today.
'Cabaret' plays through September 14 at 450 Post Street. Find tickets here.