Produced by: City Lights Theater Company
Directed by: Kit Wilder
Choreographed by: Wilder
Music direction by: Katie Coleman
Featuring: Josiah Frampton, Samantha Rasler, Shachar-Lee Yaakabovitz, Sarah Haas, Kay Thornton, Jennifer C. Maggio, Tonya Duncan, Jeremy Ryan, David Randolph Evans, Jonathan Wright, Ryan Mardesich, Nick Mandracchia, Karen DeHart, Caitlin Papp, Brian Herndon, Marley Westley, Amy Soriano-Palagi, Noah Lerner, Alex Driggers, Jennifer C. Marrio, Emily Ann Beets, Ari Lagomarsino, Krista Warner, Sarah Younan, Alex Driggers
When: July 18-August 25, 2019
Where: City Lights Theatre Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose
Tickets: $25-$46 (upgrade for table seating; discounts available for seniors, educators, students). Visit cltc.org or call 408-295-4200.
'Cabaret' at City Lights in San Jose
“Cabaret” is one of the most modified of all successful — and important — stage musicals. There is the original 1966 Broadway version, which ran for almost three years. There was the 1968 West End version, the 1972 movie, and countless revivals in New York, London and everywhere else.
No two productions are the same. Songs come and go, characters come and go, and each production has its own feel, focus, and level of sexuality.
City Lights Theatre Company in San Jose has opted to return to the original 1966 version, under the direction and choreography of City Lights stalwart Kit Wilder. Much of the sexuality of later versions is missing. This is sort of the PG13 version, compared to the R-rated versions at Broadway By The Bay in 2013 and at Hillbarn Theatre in 2017.
A press release — but not the program given to audience members — said that Wilder “favors this version, which is less well known and includes songs (such as ‘Why Should I Wake Up?’) that are in no later versions. It also begins with a tone that is less garish and less overtly sexual. Wilder believes that tonal difference leaves the show ‘somewhere to go — gives the story and its characters a more palpable arc’ and puts the story front and center.”
That story is of Berlin in 1932, as the Weimar Republic is collapsing and the Nazis are taking over. Times have been very tough, with starvation in the streets, and those who have some money sometimes spend it in decadent places like the Kit Kat Klub. An American novelist with little money comes to town, rents a room from an older German lady, and meets a singer from the Kit Kat Klub. Who forces her way into his life. A sweet and meaningful subplot involves the older German lady being wooed by a greengrocer. The coming of the Nazis changes things for everybody.
The version at City Lights also doesn’t have some of the songs that were added in later productions, such as the movie, which was really a star vehicle for Liza Minelli. Such as “Maybe This Time,” “Mein Herr” and “Money.”
Those songs, which are heard in most modern stage productions of “Cabaret,” are missing from the City Lights show.
Too bad, because Wilder and City Lights found a great and powerful Sally Bowles in Amy Soriano-Palagi. She brings a load of intensity to Sally, the British ex-patriate who is reveling in the decadent partying at the Kit Kat Klub, where she sings. Soriano-Palagi, a native of Napa who recently moved to New York in pursuit of a bigger career, has the beauty and the voice to carry the role, but also the acting chops to get Sally through her difficult story arc. A fine performance.
Ryan Mardesich, who got his B.A. in theater at Santa Clara University before decamping to Boston Conservatory for his M.F.A., is Cliff Bradshaw, the achingly sincere American novelist who is overtaken by Sally’s needs. Another important story arc, well-performed.
Josiah Frampton, a strikingly handsome utility player in a huge number of Bay Area productions, was a lot of fun as the master of ceremonies, who stars in most of the key songs between the story-telling scenes. The emcee serves as the audience’s avatar on stage, helping to interpret what we are watching in this ultimately very dramatic story. Frampton, in a full tails and vest ensemble, galumphs onto the Kit Kat Klub stage in a bow-legged strut that reminds of the Penguin in the Batman movies.
Frampton has a good, strong voice, and a big, strong smile on his face, as befits the emcee. His emcee is fully aware of the tragedy that is unfolding, but knows how to laugh on his way to the gallows.
Karen DeHart is completely adorable as Fraulein Schneider, the landlady who is being courted by the greengrocer, Herr Schulz. Brian Herndon is completely charming as the smitten man, who brings her an unbelievable gift — a pineapple. Their little courtship is beautifully, and amusingly, presented. (It is missing altogether in the movie version, which is unfortunate.)
That sweet romance, and the more trouble romance of Cliff and Sally, is intruded on by Ernst Ludwig, who’s been paying Cliff to ferry attaché cases to and from Paris. Ludwig turns out to be a Nazi. He breaks up the landlady’s romance because the greengrocer is a Jew. Cliff refuses to work with Ludwig anymore, which gets him beaten up. Nick Mandracchia is a powerful presence as the creepy Ernst.
There is no happy ending here, but a very moving one. There are different ways “Cabaret” is ended in different productions, but I very much like how Wilder and his cast do it in this show. The curtain parts, showing the entire cast in gray uniforms like those worn in German concentration and death camps.
The scenic design, by Ron Gasparinetti, is terrific. The audience walks into the Kit Kat Klub, and some of them (who paid a premium) actually sit at tables arranged around the thrust stage. As the show progresses, the actors and dancers sit among those tables, and at tables arranged one level up alongside the walls to stage left and right. There is a beautiful mural by Paulino Deleal.
There is a curtain hanging under a small proscenium, behind which is arrayed the little Kit Kat Band. On opening night, the music director, and on keys, was the very versatile Katie Coleman. On other nights (when Coleman is in San Francisco, working as part of the “Hamilton” crew), the music director will be Amanda Ku or Sarah Hirsch. The band also includes Brietta Greger on drums and percussion, Cellista on cello, and Pauline Samson on woodwinds.
It’s a fine band, and much, much smaller than the original 1966 “Cabaret” had on hand.
There are 23 people, fine performers all, in the cast. All singing, all dancing, all over the auditorium.
No body mics, which is an interesting choice. On the one hand, it sort of made for a cabaret kind of feeling. Especially for those sitting at the tables in the stage area. For the people up in the regular seats, however, it was sometimes a challenge to hear the dialogue, especially when characters spoke to the wings (that is, turned to one side or the other, rather than speaking toward the main audience).
Melissa Sanchez did a beautiful job with the costumes, dressing the men in period-accurate suits and the emcee in that amazing three-piece coat and tails. The Kit Kat girls were in underthings, but they were rather modest, for the most part, although with plenty of cleavage.
But overall, this was a PG13 kind of show. Even on what is usually the sexiest song, “Two Ladies,” there was no grabbing of other people’s private parts, which is usually seen. (Or if there was, I couldn’t see it from where I was seated at a side table.) In some productions, everybody’s genitals and breasts get grabbed, and in some shows, one of the two ladies is actually a man.
Missing also from this show is the idea that Cliff is bisexual. No side romances for him with men from the Kit Kat Klub. Instead, he stays purely with Sally. Who, apparently, does not stay true to him.
But even without those bits of sexuality, this is an important show, very well staged here. “Cabaret” has always warned of times when people slept while fascists took power.
These days, we have a president who slept with a book of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside. Who kept a copy of “Mein Kampf” on his desk. Who (incorrectly) thinks that Article 2 of the Constitution gives him the power to do anything he wants to do.
We need this show. And, by the way, don’t dawdle to get your tickets. Opening night was sold out completely, and the tickets are flying out of the box office.
“What good's permitting
“Some prophet of doom
“To wipe every smile away.
“Life is a Cabaret, old chum,
“Come to the Cabaret!”