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Richmonders Star in Cabaret at the ASF Playhouse

I want to recommend Cabaret at the SF Playhouse for its Richmond connections. The SF Playhouse, located on Sutter Street near Union Square, is a labor of love for Richmonders Bill English and Susi Damilano. Bill is artistic director, and Susi is producing director. Last night’s performance starred Bill’s daughter, Lauren English, as British cabaret performer Sally Bowles, who turned in a stunning performance. Lauren is a skilled and experienced performer, home for the summer from New York, where she is in her final year at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU where she is completing an MFA degree in Acting. You can also find Lauren waitressing at Hidden City Café in Point Richmond during lunch.


Last night we got a twofer, as Bill English joined the cast for a one-time stand in as the evil Nazi, Ernest Ludwig.


But don’t take my word for it, read the following reviews and get yourself over to the City for a real theatrical treat.


SF Playhouse Presents an Earthy and Boisterous Production of Cabaret

Lauren English & Band

Director Bill English has put a new spin on Kander and Ebb's Cabaret, playing at the SF Playhouse through September 20th. The whole production centers on the relationship of Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell) and Fraulein Schneider (Karen Grassle) and the wonderful way that Sally (Lauren English) sings the song "Cabaret" in the second act.

The Kit Kat Boys and Girls—consisting of Laurie Nellesen, Rana Kangas-Kent, Lily Tung Crystal, Bobby Bryce and Norman Munoz—are brilliantly bawdy and rambunctious, thanks to the choreography of Barbara Bernardo. Brian Yates Sharber as the extremely fey Emcee is marvelously lewd in the role, and his singing is gleaming and expressive with great sensual moves, especially on the songs "Money" and "Two Ladies."

Lauren English, who plays the role of Sally until August 27th (when Kate Del Castillo will replace her through the end of the run), is very good in the part.  She plays Sally with hints of vulnerability. Her big number, "Cabaret," in the second act is terrific.  She builds on the vulnerability of the character at the beginning of the song and comes through with a great slam-bang finish.

Louis Parnell and Karen Grassle are luminous in the roles of Herr Schultz and Fraulein Schneider.  Their love song "It Couldn't Please Me More" is poignant. Karen Grassle gives a heartfelt dramatic reading in "So What?" and "What Would You Do?".  Louis Parnell has the German accent down perfectly in an outstanding portrayal of the Jewish suitor.

Tania Johnson is very strong as Fraulein Kost when she sings the German folk song "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."  Will Springhorn Jr. makes a good appearance as the up and coming Nazi, Ernest Ludwig.

Daniel Krueger plays the difficult role of Cliff very well. This is not a showy role; however, he has a pleasant voice and manner. His duet with Lauren in "Perfectly Marvelous" is well done.  Martin Rojas-Dietrich conducts the seven-piece orchestra. It is the most hilarious, raunchiest orchestra I have heard in a long time.

Director Bill English has selected patrons seated at cafe tables to create the notorious Kit Kat Klub.  His direction is first rate.  However, some of the scenes on the extreme right and left side of the stage may be difficult for anyone sitting at those tables located in the first two rows to see. Sets and props by Kim A. Tolman are sparse but effective.  Mike Oesch's lighting gives the whole set a great nightclub look, and Valera Coble's costumes for the Kit Kate Boys and Girl are excellently bawdy.

Cabaret plays at The SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco through September 20th.   For tickets, call 415-677-9596 or visit www.TicketWeb.com.

Photo: Zabrina Tipton



Jul 07, 2008
Theater Review : Cabaret at the SF Playhouse

Is director Bill English crazy -- or simply just ambitious enough?

For some reason, the SF Playhouse's Artistic Director decided to rehearse a cast of mostly part-time actors to put on the stage version of John Kander and Fred Ebb's legendary Cabaret in four short weeks. But they've done it. In fact, it's a testament to San Francisco's downtown theatre scene that the Playhouse pulled off an impressive interpretation that spotlights some of the best of this city's talent.

Make no mistake -- producing this play is a serious task. Consider its legacy: over 42 years, five major revivals (two Broadway, three West End), and an Oscar-winning film adaptation that sealed the fame of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, Cabaret has become an institution. Thankfully, the mercilessly short prep time didn't prevent the Playhouse cast and crew from producing a deft, passionate interpretation that brought the sold-out house to its feet.

Set in Berlin in 1930 during the Nazis' rise to power, Cabaret centers itself at the decadent Kit Kat Klub and focuses on two doomed love stories. One of these is between British cabaret performer Sally Bowles (played by the director's daughter Lauren English) and newly arrived young American writer, Cliff Bradshaw (Daniel Krueger); the other is between German boarding house owner Fräulein Schneider (Karen Grassle, who played Ma in the '70s TV series Little House on the Prairie) and elderly Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell). Key to the play is the Emcee character -- played by the inimitable Bryan Yates Sharber -- a one-man Greek chorus who presents the performances at the Kit Kat as prescient commentary on the state of society in Weimar Germany.

English smartly takes his cue from the two '90s London revivals directed by Sam Mendes, which among other things results in a more sexualized take on the book -- one that highlights Cliff's bisexuality and includes boys among the Kit Kat girls. The choreography for the Kit Kat numbers is heaped with polyamorous crotch-grinding and ass-slapping, an extra touch of bawdiness that works well both for its own sake and in contrast to the tenderness of the older couple.

Also like Mendes, English resourcefully uses the musical talents of many of his cast members in the 8-person Kit Kat band, resulting in brilliant moments like Sharber being tossed his clarinet to vamp on eight quick bars in the middle of the tune "Money."

With such a squeezed schedule in front of him, English made crucial casting decisions for the Emcee and Bowles characters. Grey's ownership of the Emcee role in the original Broadway show has made later interpretations by stars like John Stamos and Neil Patrick Harris seem like well-crafted clonings. But rather than mimicking Grey's famously mincing, marionette-ish persona, Sharber projects a brassy, physical, almost lion-like character, and pulls off both lusty song-and-dance numbers and ominous narration with aplomb.

Of course, a successful Cabaret depends on a larger-than-life Sally Bowles, and Lauren English indubitably delivers the goods. As an actor and singer, she's definitely got the personality to fit such a wide-ranging role. Both her wonderful smirk in "Don't Tell Mama" and the genuine hysteria she injects into the tragic title tune speak volumes of her capability, and she's an excellent counterpoint to Krueger's skillful take on the anxious Cliff.

Finally, English's production team has truly sealed Cabaret's success. Tatjana Genser's versatile stage management showed a real instinct for economizing space, while both Valera Coble's costuming (especially the simple black-and-red outfits in "Two Ladies") and Mike Oesch's intuitive lighting design amplified both the show's glitz and its sense of tragic irony.

Yes, on paper, English's scheduling for Cabaret does seem mad. But on stage, it's simply excellent.

Cabaret is playing at the SF Playhouse. For tickets and information visit www.sfplayhouse.org or call 415-677-9596.


San Francisco Examiner

Come to the `Cabaret,' old chum

POSTED July 12, 6:47 AM

Bay Area audiences have had plenty of opportunities to come to the "Cabaret."

The Kander and Ebb musical has been done at TheatreWorks, Shotgun Players and Best of Broadway (the touring version of the 1997 Broadway revival, once with Joely Fisher in the lead, once with Andrea McArdle), to name a few.

Now SF Playhouse is whisking audiences back to Berlin circa 1930 and into the sleazy confines of the Kit Kat Klub. And I do mean confines. SF Playhouse set designer Kim A. Tolman has turned the small theater into a facsimile of an actual cabaret dive. The first two rows of seats have been replaced with small cabaret tables, and the Kit Kat Girls from the show serve drinks before the show actually begins.
There’s as much stage as there is audience, so this is an immersive experience to say the least. Director Bill English turns the show into a musical play. It’s a small cast for a musical (13 people), and most of the cast members serve time the orchestra. For instance, Tania Johnson, who plays Fraulein Kost, is a mad woman on the accordion – she actually makes it sexy in sort of a raunchy-dirty sort of way.

And Brian Yates Sharber, who gives the role of the Emcee a rather enigmatic spin, wails on a sassy red clarinet. The most actively musical cast member is Will Springhorn Jr., who plays Nazi Ernst Ludwig and then dashes back to the cramped orchestra pit to play various saxophones.

The multiple duties yield strong results. The band (which includes Martin Rojas-Dietrich on piano, and who also plays club owner Max, and drummer Alex Szotak, who looks all of 14, and Kristopher Hauck on trombone) sounds appropriately rag tag and debauched. It sounds like they’re playing music, but their minds are on something much more deviant.

English has chosen to produce a version of "Cabaret" that isn’t quite the original and definitely isn’t the revival, which includes the songs (“Maybe This Time,” “Mein Herr”) from the movie. This version is closer to the 1987 revival. “The Telephone Song” is gone, as are “Why Should I Care” and “Meeskite,” but a song for the Emcee, “I Don’t Care Much,” is in. Unlike the original production, Cliff is presented as a bisexual (an invention from the movie), and like the revival, the number “Two Ladies” is performed by the Emcee and one actual lady and one chorus boy dressed as a lady. Lewdness follows.

With less focus on Sally Bowles and Clifford Bradshaw, the musical becomes more about senior citizen lovers Fraulein Schneider (Karen Grassle) and Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell), and that’s a good thing. Their love story is far more affected by the rise of the Nazis than is Cliff and Sally’s. The older folks get the good character songs as well – “So What,” “It’ Couldn’t Please Me More,” “Married,” “What Would You Do” – and Grassle, who, in her gray wig, is unrecognizable from her “Little House on the Prairie Days,”  and Parnell perform them effectively with more attention paid to acting than singing.

Daniel Krueger as Cliff smiles through almost every line in Act 1, which is somewhat disconcerting, but he finds more depth in Act 2. Lauren English (above, photo by Zabrina Tipton) as Sally Bowles is anything but Liza Minnelli-esque, and that’s such a relief. Her Sally is a much more original, more affecting creation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her performance of the title song, which eschews the razzle-dazzle bombast and goes for something more tender and more appropriately dramatic.

Barbara Bernardo’s choreography manages to make the most of a somewhat limited performance space – the Kit Kat Klub and Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house are essentially the same place – and is able to keep zinging the audience with pelvic thrusts and the like.

Fans of "Cabaret" should definitely check out English’s version. He borrows the best bits from productions past but manages to create his own distinct feel that feels organic to the piece itself, which is a blur of show biz dazzle, decadent debauchery, honest feeling, fascistic fear mongering and some really great songs.


SHOWS: Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., plus Saturdays 3p.m.
WHERE: The SF Playhouse 533 Sutter Street
TICKETS: For tickets ($20 previews, $40 regular, $55 Special Cabaret Seating.) For more information, 415-677-
9596, TicketWeb.com.