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Cabaret at the Fort Wayne Civic
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Cabaret seems to hold a special place in the pantheon of well-known and popular musicals.
Debuting on Broadway in 1966 and based on Christopher Isherwood’s story Goodbye to Berlin, Cabaret revolves around the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy cabaret in 1930s Berlin. It wasn’t a good era for Germany; the country’s economy and society were still in miserable shape, making conditions ripe for something uglier to come along, something that was just beginning to make itself known at the dawn of the 30s.
So, while musical theater has its share of tragedies and dramas and “serious moments,” its difficult to think of a musical where the context of the story, and the audience’s knowledge of what’s going on “off stage” and behind the scenes, packs as much of an emotional punch as Cabaret. It lends an irony to even some of the play’s most joyful, hopeful songs, and the audience knows that all the wry humor and lebenslust displayed on the Kit Kat Klub’s stage isn’t going to save some of these characters.
“Each of the characters has a different take on what’s about to happen,” says Bridget Pearson, who plays singer Sally Bowles in the Civic’s production of Cabaret. “The audience knows what’s about to happen, they know what’s coming with Hitler’s rise to power, but the characters don’t, so it’s interesting to see how each character reacts to it.”
And that knowledge the audience brings can make Cabaret a difficult musical to “get right.” Too much portentousness on stage, and the story seems like an inevitable march to doom; but too little seriousness, and it almost seems crass — the rise of the Third Reich with musical interludes.
When Philip Colglazier — the executive director of the Fort Wayne Civic Theater and the director of the Civic’s production of Cabaret — held call-backs during the audition process, he told Evan Hart “Cabaret is first and foremost a dramatic piece, and in every song there has to be that dramatic message,” recalls Hart. “But there have to be those moments of levity, so the drama has somewhere to go. When the Nazi regime comes to the forefront, you have the feeling of what’s being lost.”
Hart plays the Emcee, serving as the Master of Ceremonies both at the fictional Kit Kat Klub and for Cabaret itself. “It falls on the Emcee’s shoulders to draw the audience in, make them feel comfortable, so that when things change, there’s that emotional impact,” he says.
In many ways, the Emcee is a dream role for any actor into musical theater — they are center stage for many key musical numbers, and also get to do a little improvisation as they try to engage with the audience. As a veteran of nine Civic musicals, Hart says he’s confident in his improv skills, and is still experimenting in rehearsals “Every night, I try to make at least one different choice, thinking ‘well, what if this went this way, or what if this moment took a complete opposite turn?’” he says. “It’s interesting to see the reactions from the cast and how the scene progresses after that. Of course, if the director or choreographer doesn’t like it, they’ll tell me and I won’t do it again. But the fact that I have the freedom to improvise as the Emcee is a really great opportunity as an actor.”
The Emcee offers commentary on the events surrounding the story; he’s sort of like a Greek chorus, or rather a singing and dancing Greek chorus, in drag for at least one number. For Hart, his favorite number in the show is also an audience favorite — “Money.” “It’s with me and the Kit Kat Klub girls, and we can just be crazy on stage,” he laughs. “I’m throwing all this money around, and I’m singing about greed and lust… It makes me feel powerful.”
While for much of Cabaret the Emcee seems to exist in between “the real world’ and the world portrayed on stage, Sally Bowles, the singer played by Bridget Pearson, is a character right in the middle of 30s Berlin. “Sally is almost willfully naïve,” says Pearson. “She doesn’t acknowledge what’s coming; she doesn’t want to think about it. There’s much more going on with her.”
Pearson actually did more than a little research for her role. Sally Bowles was based on a real person, a singer named Jean Ross, whom Christopher Isherwood knew in 30s Berlin. Pearson doesn’t think Ross really approved of Isherwood’s portrayal, but for Pearson, playing a flawed and compromised character like Sally is a great experience. “She’s complicated, but in the best way,” says Pearson. “There’s so much more going on below the surface that maybe she doesn’t let people see, so finding those moments where she is a little broken and you get to see what’s really going on in her head has been fun to do.”
One of those moments is during “Maybe This Time,” which Pearson — who has been in many musicals around Fort Wayne — cites as her “if you’re really going to make me pick a favorite” favorite number. “Sally is deciding where she wants to go in life, and the audience is really rooting for her to make a certain choice, but there’s this real fear she won’t,” Pearson says. “It sets things up for what eventually happens. And beyond that, it’s just a really beautiful song.”
The Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents Cabaret
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Saturdays, February 14, 21 and 28 at 8 PM
Sundays, February 15, 22 and March 1 at 2 PM_
Fridays, February 20 and 27 at 8 PM
Tickets: $29/adults; $17/age 23 and under; $24/Sunday senior matinees
Box Office: (260) 424.5220
or online: fwcivic.org
For mature audiences