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In its printed program, University Theatre artistic staff cited the August 2017 march of the KKK in Charlotesville, VA, as the impetus for their selection of Cabaret as part of the 2018-19 season. Understanding the genesis of the musical, one can see why.
Based on two works inspired by the atrocities of the Holocaust, Cabaret offers a snapshot of Berlin at the rise of the Third Reich. Prejudices abound, and while some are directly affected, others try to look the other way. In Joe Masteroff's script, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Sally Bowles, a saucy English girl, working at the racy Kit Kat Klub, meets and moves in with Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer searching for inspiration for his next novel. In the same building, German landlady Fraulein Schneider is falling in love with the German, but Jewish, Herr Schultz. Their love, and Cliff's moral compass, is tested when a growing Nazi influence begins to take hold in Berlin. Each plot point is punctuated by fun and provocative cabaret numbers from the Kit Kat girls and the Emcee - a sort of hype man, dancing girl, and narrator all rolled into one fabulous androgynous package.
After its 1966 debut on Broadway, a 1968 debut in London's West End, and seven revivals with star-studded casts, Cabaret has earned quite the legacy. With fan-favorite tunes like "Wilkhommen," "Don't Tell Mama," and the titular number, it would be easy to produce a musical with racy dance numbers, big show-stopping vocals, and a brief cautionary tale against prejudices of our time without substance and for the sole purpose of selling tickets. University Theatre Director Mia Self instead met the content head on and turned the mirror of the theatre on our current political climate.
Characterizations delved into the prejudices of the Nazi Party in the tensions between Sally and Cliff, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, and the evolution of the Kit Kat Klub. Senior McKenzie Scheid adopted Sally Bowles' ephemeral nature with an appropriate flippancy to captivate sophomore Riley Stephenson's Cliff Bradshaw. Scheid navigated Sally's bold musical numbers with vocal ease, and Stephenson, a relative newcomer to the University Theatre, developed a dynamic character arc for the unassuming Cliff. Senior Zoe Barham and sophomore David Schnatter were endearing with perhaps the most comprehensive character development between Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. Senior Ryan Vasconcellos gave a commendable performance in his debut with a musical leading role as the Emcee.
Self challenged her cast to find meaningful relationships to reflect the high stakes for each character. In Masteroff's script, months may pass between scenes, requiring actors to convey significant development within relationships in a short period of time. For a non-majors program (NC State does not offer a major in theatre) this proves a particularly challenging feat, and perhaps the pace in Act I suffered for it. Musical Director Catherine Hamner mitigated some of the lag with well-executed musical numbers, supported by the flawless eight-piece pit orchestra. The orchestra proved to be so effective that sound designer Kevin Wright could have stood to raise the vocalists' mics at times. Otherwise, his balance of microphones, music, and sound effects carried off without a hitch – a rare occurrence for opening nights. Tara Z. Mullins' choreography was easily managed by the ensemble, notably by the Kit Kat Girls (Isabella Cortes, Jen Gerbe, Sofia Lappas, Devon Mandell, Dedreanna Scott, Aysia Slade, and LilyGrace Wolfe). Costume designer Laura J. Parker met the challenge of designing historically risqué costumes with the appropriate level of modesty for a student production; although the Emcee fell more towards the Joel Grey than the Alan Cumming end of the spectrum, despite this production's basis on his 1998 revival. The crowning jewel of the technical design was the marriage of Jennifer Sherrod's lighting design and Jayme Mellema's stunning set design. The single design of a dilapidated skyline in the background of the glamorous Kit Kat Klub proscenium was absolutely Broadway caliber.
Based on the lobby art gallery "Student Reflections on Cabaret," it seems the department has taken full advantage of the educational opportunities available as the content of the musical is fully explored. The cast took on the juxtaposition of the joyful musical numbers and deteriorating social climate of the late 1930s and their learning conveyed in their commitment to their roles.
Cabaret continues through Sunday, February 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.