Sometimes a particular production of a play or musical casts such a spell over the theater community that it practically comes to define the work. For example, the British director Peter Brook's 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is almost indisputably regarded as the definitive 20th-century version of Shakespeare's comedy. Brook's mise-en-scène continues to influence directors to this day. With their emphasis on the power of the imagination and uncluttered sets, critically acclaimed productions by the likes of Declan Donnellan and, most recently, Tim Supple (whose Brook-infused Indian Dream visited San Francisco earlier this year) are cases in point.
Though its legacy is shorter, it looks like Sam Mendes' 1993 production of Cabaret might be heading the same way. The British film and theater director originally created his take on Joe Masteroff, Fred Ebb, and John Kander's 1966 musical about a couple of young expats living large in Weimar-era Berlin for the Donmar Warehouse in London. The show transferred to Broadway in 1998, where a coterie of well-known performers, starting with Natasha Richardson, took turns at playing the main role of 19-year-old British cabaret singer Sally Bowles. The production ran for 2,377 performances, becoming the third-longest-running revival in Broadway musical history. (Oh! Calcutta! and Chicago occupy the number one and two spots.)
Numerous subsequent productions of Cabaret have drawn directly from Mendes' version. These include a 2006 French iteration staged at the famed Folies Bergère music hall in Paris, this season's Stratford Shakespeare Festival production in Ontario, Canada (which runs through October), and SF Playhouse's current take on the musical here in San Francisco. On my way out of the theater the night I saw this local version, its director, Bill English, mentioned that he had borrowed bits from several previous productions to create his Cabaret. Mendes' version, for better and for worse, was clearly at the top of his list.
Based on John Van Druten's play I Am a Camera (which in turn was adapted from novelist Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories), Cabaret focuses on the relationship between the hedonistic hoofer Bowles and orderly young American writer and English-language tutor Clifford Bradshaw. The two meet in Berlin in 1929 and become friends, then roommates, then lovers. While life at the Kit Kat Klub, the seedy nightspot where Bowles performs, continues in its usual riotously debauched fashion, the world outside is changing fast. A doomed romance between Bradshaw's genteel landlady, Fräulein Schneider, and her beau, a Jewish fruit seller by the name of Herr Schultz, offers a hint of the darkness ahead as Germany falls under the Nazi Party's spell.
As usual, SF Playhouse's style-savvy production team understands how to work the cozy 99-seat Playhouse space. With its understated colors and George Grosz– and Alphonse Mucha–inspired Art Deco paintings and embellishments, Kim A. Tolman's set design succinctly captures the Weimar aesthetic. The addition of a row of round cafe-style tables and chairs close to the stage further creates an intimate, nightclub aura. Though the cabaret seating is by no means original (Sam Mendes', not to mention Russell Blackwood's 2005-2006 production for Shotgun Players, did the same) we're instantly transported into — and consistently engrossed in — the world of the musical. The doubling-up of actors as Kit Kat Klub musicians is another successful borrowing from Mendes' production. The dexterous performers move seamlessly from dancing and singing to leaping up into the cubbyhole-like inner stage at the back of the main performance area where they tackle everything from an accordion to a bubblegum-pink clarinet.
Other aspects of the production's "homage" to Mendes aren't quite as triumphant. The prevailing moods of desperation and oversexualization that the British director pushed to the limit seem one-dimensional and tired 15 years on. As the Emcee, Brian Yates Sharber oozes androgyne raunchiness and an over-the-top Mitteleuropean accent. Sharber is no Alan Cumming (the Scottish actor who played the role in Mendes' production), though SF Playhouse borrows many of his S&M gambits. The "Two Ladies" cabaret number about threesomes was conceived for the Emcee and two cabaret girls in Harold Prince's original Broadway production. Mendes added an extra layer of sexual intrigue by substituting a boy for one of the girls, a trick English also adopts. This naughty ode to bisexuality might have seemed risqué in 1990s London and New York, but barely titillates today's Bay Area audiences. Similarly, the Nazi torch song "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" lacks power, introduced as it is, Mendes-style, on a crackly old recording. Only when the cast bursts fully into song live onstage does its potency come across. Conversely, when Sharber, like Cumming before him, takes off his costume at the end to reveal a concentration camp uniform, the effect is overbearingly didactic. Not all Mendes' ideas are good ones.
Where SF Playhouse's production mainly distinguishes itself from Mendes' version is in Lauren English's portrayal of Bowles. Revealing the deadness in her eyes behind an extrovert, gin-toting persona, she emulates the hollow hopelessness that pervaded Richardson's portrayal of Cabaret's antiheroine. But she's bigger, brasher, and definitely more drag-queen–like than Richardson. The performance is too large for SF Playhouse's small space and rather monosyllabic: English hits the same hysterical pitch throughout, conveying the sense that she's about to crack with a grating little giggle. But when she delivers the musical's torch song, "Cabaret," spluttering like a light bulb about to burn out, her performance suddenly coalesces into bitter, raw perfection and we understand what it is to dance and sing on the cusp of Armageddon. (By the time this review appears, English will have been replaced in the role by Kate Del Castillo.)
While there's truth to the saying "All art is theft" — and Mendes himself filched inspiration for his version from the world of nightclubs — there's a difference between appropriating others' ideas and spinning them into something bold, new, and true and merely rehashing secondhand concepts. If SF Playhouse's engaging if ultimately unsatisfying production of Cabaret does anything, it reaffirms Picasso's famous edict that "good artists copy; great artists steal."