San Francisco Playhouse’s “Cabaret” boasts bawdy Kit Kat Club dancers; John Paul Gonzalez as the Master of Ceremonies is at center. (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli)

SF Playhouse’s ‘Cabaret’ dazzling and timely

Nationalistic numbers reflect today’s America

San Francisco Playhouse’s dazzling production of the Masteroff, Kander & Ebb musical “Cabaret,” first seen as a Hal Prince production on Broadway in 1966, had an unnerving resonance on opening night.

That’s because it was Independence Day eve, and during the first-act closing number, the let’s-make-Germany-great-again anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a few of us couldn’t help thinking of tanks on the national mall in this divided nation.

It’s a powerful story that “Cabaret” dramatizes, musicalizes and dancifies (to superb effect as choreographed here, Bob Fosse-style, by Nicole Helfer), about the gradual rise of facism in Germany as it affects, in particular, two lost souls.

Based on British writer Christopher Isherwood’s tales of his experiences as a gay man in Berlin between wars, the various iterations of the story go from the 1951 John Van Druten play (later a movie) “I Am a Camera,” to the Broadway musical, to the Fosse movie.

This version emerges from Sam Mendes’ 1998 Broadway revival, yet in comparison, if memory serves, it’s even more outrageously bawdy, and to see it in this intimate space is a revelation.

It’s set in two locales: the Kit Kat Club, a “seedy little dive” where feckless British expat chanteuse Sally Bowles performs (golden-voiced Cate Hayman is both insouciant and achingly vulnerable in the role); and, in a feat of clever staging (scenic designer: Jacquelyn Scott), in the rented room that Sally shares with a newly arrived American, Cliff (an engaging Atticus Shaindlin as the young gay writer smitten by Berlin’s “tawdry and terrible” glamor).

Orchestrating the action is the club’s lascivious, gender-fluid Master of Ceremonies (an intrepid and excellent John Paul Gonzalez, all sly smirks and innuendos), presiding over a rag-tag chorus of “boys” and “girls,” whose imaginative and constantly changing costumes (by designer Abra Berman) might make your head spin.

In the mix are Cliff’s amiable new friend Ernst (a perfectly cast Will Springhorn, Jr.; SF Playhouse has a gift for inspired casting) and Sally and Cliff’s landlady (a wonderfully no-frills turn by Jennie Brick) and her suitor, Mr. Schultz (the gentle charmer Louis Parnell).

The orchestra plays on an elevated platform, some audience members are seated at cabaret tables onstage and at times choristers silently haunt the stage like ghosts.

With strong voices and topnotch acting all around under Susi Damilano’s sensitive, carefully calibrated direction, this “Cabaret” ought to be chilling and wildly entertaining any night of the year.

REVIEW

Cabaret

Presented by San Francisco Playhouse

Where: 450 Post St., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 14

Tickets: $35 to $125

Contact: (415) 677-9596, sfplayhouse.org

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