Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Size Isn't Everything

In the cold, winter months of 1966-1967, two blocks of prime real estate in New York's theater district witnessed an amazing game of hopscotch. When David Merrick decided not to open the eagerly anticipated musical version of Breakfast At Tiffany's which starred Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, had a book by Edward Albee, and boasted music and lyrics by Bob Merrill (Funny Girl, Carnival, Take Me Along, New Girl In Town), the Majestic Theater suddenly found itself without a tenant. With an estimated seating capacity of 1610, the Majestic was then one of Broadway's largest theaters and, potentially, one of the biggest revenue producers for the Shubert Organization (its current occupant, The Phantom of the Opera, has been there for 20 years).

Nine weeks after Merrick shuttered Breakfast at Tiffany's (which, by all accounts, was dead on arrival), Fiddler on the Roof moved from the 1435-seat Imperial to the Majestic. Within two weeks Cabaret (also directed and produced by Harold Prince) was transferred from the 1218-seat Broadhurst to the larger Imperial. Keeping in mind that this all took place long before anyone had a personal computer to help strategize planning, moving two successful Broadway musicals was an immense challenge for Prince's office -- as well as for the Shubert Organization.

Needless to say, both shows continued to generate handsome profit margins (Cabaret ended its original run at the 1761-seat Broadway Theater). But, as the old saying goes, size isn't everything. Ultimately, it's what you do with what you've got that matters.

Sometimes a play which has been seen in larger venues shows new strengths when performed in a more intimate setting. Two-piano versions of large musicals such as My Fair Lady and The Most Happy Fella have been staged with resounding success. The SF Playhouse's production of Cabaret offers another shining example of taking a shrink-to-fit approach to what was originally a rather large Broadway musical.

Cabaret is a perfect candidate for this treatment. Both the original production and the 1998 touring revival (which played San Francisco's Curran Theater with Michael C. Hall in the role of the Emcee), were mounted on proscenium stages that kept the audience at a safe distance. SF Playhouse's new production of Kander & Ebb's now 42-year-old masterpiece eliminates any sense of false security by turning the first two rows into nightclub seating and letting the performers roam and interact with the audience. Kim Tolman's intricate unit set does wonders to focus the audience's attention on the delicacy of the show's relationships while showing how easily their fragile equilibrium is threatened by the growing influence of the Nazis. The scenes which take place at the Kit Kat Klub fare even better, as the genuine rattiness of the place lets the audience share in the kind of willful escapism that chooses to ignore outside events.

I was especially curious to see this production of Cabaret after having seen the documentary Chris and Don: A Love Story at the Frameline LGBT film festival. In that film, Don Bachardy explains why he and Christopher Isherwood (who wrote I Am A Camera -- the novel upon which Cabaret is based) felt that Liza Minelli was the wrong person to play Sally Bowles in the movie of Cabaret. Sally is, after all, a perpetual loser who bounces from one affair to another without gaining any traction. Whereas other characters in the show have some prescience about what the rise of the Nazis might bring, Sally is much more concerned with being liked, loved, and applauded. An extremely capable performer, Lauren English nailed her musical numbers while showing Sally, in her offstage moments, to be so pigheadedly sure of her luck that she couldn't possibly understand how she is her own worst enemy.

Photo by Zabrina Tipton

Casting for this production was quite solid, with Brian Yates Sharber as an energetic Emcee, Louis Parnell as a over-eager Herr Schultz, and Karen Grassle as the cynical Frau Schneider. Several performers (including the Emcee) doubled as musicians in the Kit Kat Band. I particularly enjoyed the performances by Bobby Bryce and Norman Munoz as the Kit Kat Boys.

Photo by Zabrina Tipton

Bill English's stage direction helped tighten the drama by crafting certain intimate moments in a way that might not have been possible on a much larger stage. I was most impressed by Daniel Krueger's portrayal of Cliff -- which may well be the best I've seen. Krueger's eagerly expressive face captures the wide-eyed excitement of a naif who has landed in a snake pit. His growing realization of the need to leave Berlin -- and what will happen to those who stay behind, anchored the show in a way I've never really seen.

Photo by Zabrina Tipton

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