Though Fun, Musical Misses the Mark

Photo: A CHORUS LINE. This small production of
SF Playhouse/Courtesy
A CHORUS LINE. This small production of "Cabaret" cuts down on its number of Kit Kat Klub girls and boys, but those that remain show an impressive range of talent, sometimes doubling as the band.

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It sounds strange to say, given the musical's content, but the SF Playhouse's current production of "Cabaret" is actually too light.

Oh, sure. Nazis, anti-Semitism, unwanted pregnancy-they're all here, but this "Cabaret" never seems to fully grasp the severity of its situation. And so, while the first act is a modest success, the second falls curiously short.

This is the story of Cliff, an American writer seeking inspiration in Berlin. There, he meets the divinely decadent Sally Bowles, a bubbly (if not slightly unbalanced) cabaret singer at the Kit Kat Klub. Forming an unlikely bond and living arrangement, the two revel in the city's excess-that is, until the Nazi party begins to make its imposing presence felt.

Let's start with what's right, because this production does gets off on the right foot. Brian Yates Sharber makes a grand, memorable entrance as the Emcee, host of the Kit Kat Klub (and, in effect, of the show as a whole). He is at once charismatic and off-putting, capturing the balance that makes an effective production of "Cabaret" so unsettling.

As a whole, the cast is solid, with a few exceptional performances. As the landlady Fraulein Schneider, veteran actress Karen Grassle is particularly good. She may not be the strongest singer of the bunch, but her acting is pitch perfect. It's also worth noting that her best-known role ("Ma" in "Little House on the Prairie") makes her appearance in this raunchy musical all the more amusing.

Daniel Krueger as Cliff and Lauren English as Sally are both talented. The latter has the edge, if only because she's given more to do. In the program, director Bill English quotes a note he sent to the cast during rehearsals: "Remember, this is a play first, a musical second." Like Grassle, neither of the leads are flawless singers, but their voices suit their roles. Moreover, whatever notes English couldn't quite hit in her first numbers she more than makes up for in her brutal rendition of the title song.

All of this sets "Cabaret" up for a strong finish-and that's where this production really falters. As the first act closes with the unnerving anthem "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," Nazi flags descend from the stage. We're meant to feel uncomfortable, and for a time (namely, intermission) we do. But nothing in the second act ever fully captures that dire sense of worlds collapsing, of lives falling apart.

Two numbers, in particular, stand out. The first is "I Don't Care Much," a haunting melody near the end of the show. At this point, the Emcee should be broken, defeated-more than anyone else in "Cabaret," he is a reflection of Germany's decline. The SF Playhouse version, however, lacks the integral irony; this Emcee sounds almost sincere.

More flagrant is the finale. Without ruining much, it goes without saying that things don't go so well for the German people-especially those not considered "true" Germans. The finale of the original hinted at it, while the 1998 revival made it clearer. This "Cabaret" falls somewhere in the middle, with a lackluster montage of sorts. It's not a happy ending, but it's still too faint to carry the show's message.

A musical that's more entertaining than thought-provoking isn't the end of the world. At the same time, one can't help but note all the missed opportunities. The space is ideal for this production: The small, intimate theater is brilliantly transformed into a cabaret, with the front row sitting at tables rather than in chairs. There's no reason why the show shouldn't get under its audience's skin. Instead, they leave the theater humming.


Down a prairie oyster with Louis at [email protected]

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