Reviewed by Judy Richter
That's the setting for "Cabaret," the memorable musical by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, now enjoying a noteworthy production by Broadway By the Bay. Director Brandon Jackson employs an effectively minimalist staging that keeps the action flowing smoothly and propelling the plot.
Much of the action takes place in the Kit Kat Klub, where the leering Emcee (Alex Rodriguez) oversees overtly sexual performances by the six Kit Kat Girls and the four Kit Kat Boys. The club's star performer is an Englishwoman, Sally Bowles (Amie Shapiro), who insinuates herself into the room and bed of a recently arrived American writer, Clifford Bradshaw (Jack Mosbacher).
They live in a rooming house owned by Fräulein Schneider (Karen DeHart), an older spinster. Fräulein Schneider figures in a major subplot along with Herr Schultz (Stuart Miller), a kindly widower who owns a fruit shop. They contemplate marriage, but his being Jewish proves to be an insurmountable barrier in the face of the Nazis' anti-Semitism.
"Cabaret" was a Broadway hit that first came to San Francisco in 1987. It has been seen locally several times since then. BBB staged it in 2004 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center.
For many fans, though, the benchmark production is the 1972 film starring Joel Grey as the Emcee and Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles. They set the standard against which subsequent performers are judged.
Rodriguez's interpretation of the Emcee is far different from Grey's, but it works well in the context of this production. He sings, dances and acts well.
Likewise, Shapiro's Sally Bowles is far different from Minnelli's. Minnelli is the better dancer, but choreographer Kristin Kusanovich wisely simplifies Shapiro's dance moves. Shapiro paces the emotions and volume well in such songs as "Mein Herr" and "Maybe This Time," but pushes in the title song. Her acting is generally good, but she can't quite capture the neediness and vulnerability that motivate Sally.
Mosbacher does well as Cliff, a role based on author Christopher Isherwood, who penned the stories on which the play by John Van Druten and this musical are based.
Supporting characters are solid, especially DeHart as Fräulein Schneider and Miller as Herr Schultz. However, Brandon's direction dilutes the tragic sadness of her decision not to marry Herr Schultz because of how the marriage might affect her livelihood.
Melissa Reinertson does double duty as a Kit Kat Girl and Fräulein Kost, a prostitute who also lives in Fräulein Schneider's house. Warren Wernick plays Ernst, who befriends Cliff on the train to Berlin but who is revealed to be less innocent than he seems at first.
The show works best in the first act, when Brandon's staging relies mainly on a few chairs to set the scene on the two-level set by Margaret Toomey. She also designed the character-appropriate costumes. The staging doesn't work as well in the second act as emotions and the tensions heighten.
Kusanovich's inventive choreography is one of the show's highlights, as well as the musical direction by Sean Kana, who directs the excellent onstage orchestra from the keyboard.
Lighting by Michael Rooney sometimes misses the main speaker in a scene. Jon Hayward's sound design provides the right degree of amplification for comfortable listening -- something that's not always the case in contemporary musical productions.
Taken as a whole, this production, though not perfect, has much to recommend it.
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