Susi Damilano, the director of Cabaret, was shrewd to cast Cate Hayman in the role of Sally Bowles. Hayman’s allure owes very little to Liza Minnelli’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1972 film. Her blonde hair and sultry voice don’t summon up Minnelli’s jittery, androgynous gamine. This more pensive version of Sally isn’t so high-strung. She’s still self-absorbed but sulkier and languid — except when she’s on stage at the Kit Kat Klub. That’s when she’s most expressive and alive. In the movie, Sally lives in a perpetual state of withdrawal, whether from alcohol or men. As she points out in the foot-stomping, ass-slapping, chair-wrangling number “Mein Herr,” getting emotionally entangled isn’t one of her strengths. Hayman’s voice is warmer and deeper than Minnelli’s but she manages, effortlessly, to sell the song’s cynical point of view.
As the Master of Ceremonies who welcomes the audience inside this 1930s nightclub in Berlin, John Paul Gonzalez doesn’t try to escape from Alan Cumming’s towering influence. Cumming played the louche emcee in two separate Broadway revivals. Gonzalez borrows the Scottish actor’s attitude and, at times, his phrasing. The imitation starts to matter less because the actor takes so much pleasure in performing the role. Gonzalez corrals the other dancers with his loose hips and expressive lips. Ruby red sequins decorate his nipples. They sparkle when the spotlights hit his bare chest. And, in what must surely be a nod to Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, he wears fishnet stockings and heels.
Like most productions of this Kander and Ebb musical, Cabaret promises titillation. The Kit Kat Klub dancers — both men and women — wear lingerie that ranges from scanty to torn to barely there. For those theatregoers who have a fetish for spanking, they’ll find plenty of it displayed on a variety of rosy cheeks. What the musical offers as a counterpoint to the decadence and frivolity are two romances that run parallel to each other. Sally eyes a handsome American writer while she’s performing at the club. Clifford Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) is newly arrived to Europe from Ohio. On the outside, he presents himself as a square. But Cliff actually wants to have every kind of experience that the Weimar Republic has to offer. When he enters the nightclub, he’s entranced by Sally and Bobby (Zachary Isen), one of the dancers.
Cliff and Sally’s affair isn’t as well drawn out as it is in the movie. Shaindlin scarcely even gets to sing. Instead, there’s a sweet subplot about a courtship between their landlady Fräulein Schneider (Jennie Brick) and Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell), a local merchant. “It Couldn’t Please Me More” is a duet and an ode to the pineapple he brings her. As their platonic friendship deepens into a more significant attachment, the Nazis are strengthening their numbers. When someone throws a brick through Herr Schultz’s storefront window, Fräulein Schneider questions the wisdom of being engaged to a Jewish man. Because of the setting in that particular time and place, the audience knows that every act of tenderness will fail under all of the historical weight. Fräulein Schneider tells Cliff she’s a survivor, a pragmatic person. Chagrinned, he understands that she won’t risk her own life for the sake of companionship and love.
Neither will Sally. But her concerns about being with Cliff have nothing to do with his religion or the impending rise of fascism. She can sing the heartbreaking “Maybe This Time,” filling the lyrics up with a lifetime’s worth of longing, and still decide that she wants to be free of him. Despite the emcee’s early assertion that you can leave your troubles behind when you step inside the theater, it’s the ultimate feint. Every cast member gets an unhappy ending. Without revealing the specifics of the final scene, even the sexy, provocatively clad dancers conclude their revels with an exhausted air of hopelessness. Come to the Cabaret, old chum, but the hedonism that’s on display is only temporary.
Cabaret, through Sept. 14, at S.F. Playhouse, 450 Post St. $35-$125; 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org