August 01, 2008

Cabaret @ San Francisco Playhouse

I'm not going to write a full review of this production, as quite frankly I was on holiday. However, while in San Francisco last week I went to see the San Francisco Playhouse's production of Cabaret. Partly this was because I'd never seen a play in the States before and was curious to see how different the experience would be, and partly because I recently saw Bob Fosse's celebrated film for the first time and was blown away by it. Both production and experience were interesting, so I thought I'd scribble a few notes before it fades completely from my mind.

I read on the site that the Playhouse is, indeed, a professional theatre. While there, I have to admit I hadn't been quite sure. The ticket prices suggested professionals (starting at approximately £20), as did the excellent publicity campaign and the few equity members indicated in the castlist. It's a small venue though, located at the top of a set of stairs next to a nail-and-beauty parlour, which threw us slightly. The cast were largely youthful, and several of them appeared to have day jobs - or, at least, supporting careers. I'd place them as roughly equivalent to a small professional British company like Fail Better, but with their own venue which is, of course, a distinct advantage. I'd be interested to know how wide-ranging this kind of practice is - is it usual for American companies to have their own venue and a part-time/volunteer company, while in the UK it's more usual to have a full-time company and no permanent venue? I digress, though.

With the first two rows of the small auditorium given over to cabaret tables presided over by German-accented waitresses, much had been done to recreate the atmosphere of the Kit Kat Club. A live band on stage looked after the music while the whole theatre was used in the cabaret scenes, the charismatic MC often working his way through the crowd. The audience were lively throughout, perhaps sometimes too so for my tastes (the bloke behind me who put his feet up on the seats in front of him after two minutes and talked throughout the whole performance really irritated me), but the attitude for the evening was one of definite fun.

The cast were generally reasonable. The undoubted highlight was Brian Yates Sharber as the MC, who injected all of his scenes with plenty of gusto and gave the production momentum whenever it flagged. For, unfortunately, there were times when the pace dragged, which struck me as being as much the fault of the play itself as of the cast. The entire subplot with the elderly couple was dull and the songs trite and instantly forgotten - one can easily understand why they were cut for the movie. Another subplot - the prostitute upstairs - was far more entertaining, but didn't seem to particularly go anywhere (and the revelation of her as a Nazi sympathiser particularly jarred).

Lauren English made a decent stab at an English accent as Sally Bowles, and gave a particularly good - and desperate - rendition of the title song. In fact, most of the Kit Kat songs were well-performed, largely thanks to Sharber's energy and good voice. Personally, though, I felt that If You Could See Her Through My Eyes bordered on the distasteful through being played for laughs, the monkey/Jewess clambering into the audience and picking through an audience member's hair. The beauty of that song, certainly as I understand it, comes from the quiet dignity of the woman while the audience laugh at her, allowing the MC's final line "She wouldn't look Jewish at all" to shock and chill the audience. By making her ridiculous, much of this impact was lost. The cabaret dancers were all fine, though the stock of suggestive moves was somewhat limited, Two Ladies in particular feeling almost formulaic in its run through stock sexual maneuveres. That's what we paid to see though, so can't complain!

The main plot was handled well by English and Daniel Krueger, who gave a performance that was far less innocent than I'd expected, his sexuality coming to the fore almost as soon as he arrived in Germany and the actor bringing out the darker, slyer aspects of the character early on. English was excellent throughout, a torrent of unstoppable energy at the start and an increasingly frustrated and trapped woman towards the end, culminating in Cabaret itself.

Ultimately, though, I don't want to spend too much time on this. It was a thoroughly enjoyable night out, and particularly interesting to see an earlier version of the show than is preserved on film. I'm seeing Birmingham Rep's far more high-profile version at the end of the month, so it'll be interesting to compare!

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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