Civic Theatre prepares a "Cabaret" for our unsettled times
When the musical Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966, memories of World War II and revelations about Nazi concentration camps were still fresh for the majority of Americans. The story of Weimar Germany’s plunge into nihilism and the rise of the Nazi Third Reich resonated with audiences as a reminder of how insidious evil can be.
Kat Walsh and Jennifer Goltz-Taylor hope their production of Cabaret for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre is equally relevant for our troubled times.
“When Jennifer and I first proposed the show, we were looking at how polarized people are around a number of issues in our country and around the world,” said Walsh, the show’s director. “There’s a feeling of being unsettled on all sides of the political world. When we looked at the cabaret world in the 1930s, there was that same feeling of unsettledness. David Mamet said we’re here to engage with our audience and create a community, to ask what in the hell is going on it this world.”
Cabaret began as book of two novellas in 1945, Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. A novella from the book Goodbye to Berlin was adapted into the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten in 1952. The musical, with a book by Joseph Masteroff, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb was an immediate hit on Broadway and won several Tony Awards. The film adaptation in 1972 won acting Oscars for Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey and a best director award for Bob Fosse. The stage version has been revived on Broadway several times, most successfully with a restaging that began in London and opened on Broadway in 1998 with Alan Cummings in the role of the Emcee. The popular song score includes “Cabaret,” “Wilkommen,” “Money,” and “Mein Herr.”
The story is set in the risque cabaret section of Berlin just before Hitler is named chancellor. American writer Cliff Bradshaw has come to the notorious city looking for excitement and adventure. He meets and falls in love with Sally Bowles, the headliner at The Kit Kat Club, an insecure and vulnerable young Brit who has come to Berlin to prove herself. The musical deals with the personal drama of their relationship, the rise of anti-Semitism and the sharp economic decline that leads to Nazi ascendance. The biting satire and sexual openness of the Kit Kat Club and its slyly subversive Emcee plays as a contrast to the story of Cliff, Sally and the residents of the rooming house where Cliff has taken a room.
“I think this play asks that question of us, what the hell is going on around us,” said Walsh. “And there are a number of responses from all the characters in the show. One of my favorite moments is when Cliff looks at Sally Bowles and says, ‘Don’t you read the newspapers, don’t you understand what’s happening out in the world’ and she says, ‘I don’t want to talk politics.’”
Walsh said she has told the actors to avoid looking at the film and videos of other stage versions so that they can present a fresh view. She said one of the challenges is offering a production that alludes to today without making parallels with today.
Musical director Jennifer Goltz-Taylor wrote her master’s thesis on German cabaret and is working to find a balance between what she calls the Joel Grey version and Alan Cummings version while being true to German cabaret.
“Joel Grey approached his character from a kind of vaudeville tradition, but still grounded in the German cabaret tradition, which is not the phenomenon we have in the U.S. It’s more erudite than what we call cabaret,” she said. “It pushes more social and political buttons.”
The more flamboyant Cummings’ version was directed to a more sexually open audience.
“Alan Cummings version, which I adore, goes way past what would have been,” she said, “They just skip over the double entendres and go to single entendres.”
Goltz-Taylor said she was interested in going back to the “wonderful double entendres” of the cabarets in Weimar Berlin. She has deemphasized the prancing sexuality of “Cumming’s version” for “weirdness of the humor and use of humor to go for the political punch.”
She said the “Cummings version” plays up the “queer history” of pre-Nazi Berlin where there was more acceptance of homosexuals.
“Up to 1929, there was a real development toward gay rights, and then there was the economic crash and within four years the Nazis came to power and all that goes underground, so we are pulling as much as we can from the script and build on that,” she said.
One of the reasons Cliff comes to Berlin is because of that sexual freedom. He is bisexual. Chris Grimm, who plays Cliff, said they have been talking about Cliff as a surrogate for the audience as he experiences the other characters but he is also a distinct character himself who has come to the city for excitement.
“Cliff is in Berlin to find some action. He’s there to soak everything up and he’s there on the arrival of something evil,” Grimm said.
Meeting Sally Bowles is a sudden jolt for Cliff. She’s quirky, sexually adventurous but also vulnerable.
“She’s a cabaret singer from England,” said Laura Dysarczyk, who plays Sally. “She has big ambitions to be a great performer, a great actress and it’s a question if she has the talent. It’s been said in the show that every job she’s gotten is because she slept with someone. She’s a chameleon, someone who lives on the edge and lives not by social standards but hops from man to man. She’s an extravagant character. She loves fully, she hates fully, she drinks fully, and she plays a lot.”
Sally sings the big showstopper title and when she performed it for the cast she said it was “kind of like flying.” In the show, Sally returns to Kit Kat Club after having been fired.
“She’s shaken to the core by someone she loves and by life circumstances and she has to go on stage in this state where someone has dropped a bomb on her and hit her in the guts,” said Dysarczyk. “At the beginning, she’s like a deer in the headlights. I’ve had that happen where life happens and then you have to go on stage and you get in this position where you’re kind of naked in front of an audience."
Dysarczyk said that somewhere in the middle of the song, Sally makes a choice to reject the conventional life of wife and mothers. “She lifts herself up by the choice she makes. She loves the cabaret, she loves the stage, and that’s the path she will take,” Dsarczyk said.
This production makes a crucial change in the usual production by casting a woman in the role of the Emcee at the Kit Kat. Trish Fountain said she had to adjust to playing what is usually a male role. Songs had to be adjusted to fit her higher voice and some lyrics needed some adjusting.
“It’s important to me that the Emcee is an ally of the people to be free, politically, sexually, free in any number of ways in their personal lives an in their beliefs. I get to tell stories,” Fountain said.
A running theme in this production, expressed in the minimalist set design and in the choreography of Tyler Stiekel is deterioration, in energy, in hope for the future, in the physical world around them.
“That’s where that unsettled feeling comes into play,” said Walsh. “You can’t pretend anymore. Reality pushes its way through.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of "Cabaret" will be presented on Oct. 26, 7:30 pm; Oct. 27-28, 8 pm; and Oct. 29, 2 pm at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the north campus of the University of Michigan. For ticket information and to order tickets, visit a2ct.org, or call 734-971-2228. A few tickets will be set aside for purchase at the door.