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‘Cabaret’ pulls no punches

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Randy Harrison excels as the Emcee in the tour of Roundabout Theatre Company’s “Cabaret” onstage at the Golden Gate Theatre. (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

We may all be waiting with bated breath for “Hamilton” to come to San Francisco, but in the meantime, there’s the deservedly ever-popular musical “Cabaret.” This is the touring company of the second revival of Roundabout Theatre Company’s raunchy 1998 revival (which transferred to Broadway and toured here in 2001).

If anything, the current production, originally directed by Sam Mendes and inspired by his 1993 Donmar Warehouse, London, staging, seems more edgy, more shocking, than previously.

And musically speaking, this second-revival touring company is terrific, from the principals to the singing-and-dancing chorus that also forms the rag-tag orchestra, rounded out by a few extra musicians.

The story — based on British writer Christopher Isherwood’s 1945 “The Berlin Stories,” turned into a stage play by John Van Druten and then this musical by Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb — is apparently timeless. (On opening night, an ad lib by the emcee slyly referenced our own fraught upcoming national elections.)

It’s set in Berlin, 1929-30. There, in the dissolute Kit Kat Club, low-rent British chanteuse Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss, engaging but never quite authentically vulnerable) performs. And there she meets new-in-town, bisexual American writer Clifford (Lee Aaron Rosen), who falls under her spell; they rent a room in Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house.

As Clifford writes and Sally sings, the Nazi party inexorably rises.

Meanwhile, in a particularly poignant scenario, their no-nonsense landlady (played by an excellent, sharp-edged Shannon Cochran) begins an affair with a Jewish fruit seller (a touching Mark Nelson). And a German friend (Ned Noyes) involves Clifford in what turns out to be a frightening mission. Ultimately both Clifford and Sally must face a new and separate reality.

There’s a wicked Weill-and-Brechtian feel to this darkly entertaining production, directed by BT McNicholl. The encroaching horror feels palpable, from the choreography (Rob Marshall, original choreographer and co-director of the 1998 production), with its overt and leering sexuality and copy-cat Gestapo stylings, to the costumes (by William Ivey Long) that include tawdry dance-hall garb as well as a grimly iconic black trenchcoat, to the songs themselves, which go from the desperate title song to the wistful duet “Married” to the chilling first-act closing anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”

As the Emcee at the Kit Kat Club, Randy Harrison gives Joel Grey and Alan Cumming a run for their money: lewd, lipsticked, black-booted, he’s ever-present, drifting throughout the action like a malevolent spectre. This production pulls no punches.

REVIEW
Cabaret
Presented by SHN
Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F.
When: Tuesdays-Sundays, closes July 17
Tickets: $50 to $212
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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