By Dale King
The musical Cabaret is dark and forbidding, much like its setting, Berlin in the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler and his minions began their horrific mission of turning Germany into a gutter of hate.
Grad students from Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Theatre and Dance wrap up their two-play Festival Rep series this summer with a masterful retelling and re-singing of the classic 1966 show that emphasizes the grim, shadowy side of the play’s subject by using sparse scenery and darkened, winding stairways.
Now being performed in the Studio One Theatre on the Boca Raton campus, Cabaret also marks the end of a two-year theatrical education experience for 10 FAU thespians who’ll receive their master of fine arts degrees in August. The two lead actors, Trayven Call as the bawdy, lascivious Emcee, and Gaby Tortoledo as saloon singer Sally Bowles, whose confused and contorted life is not exactly a cabaret, are in that select ensemble.
Based on the writings of Christopher Isherwood, who experienced first-hand the sexually licentious, pre-World War II Berlin, the show offers an eclectic mix of songs by Fred Ebb and John Kander. The soundtrack runs an odd gamut, from the not-so-welcoming “Willkommen” that introduces the audience to the garishly garbed and grease-painted Emcee to the title song, rendered with power and fierce anger by Tortoledo.
The show focuses on Cliff Bradshaw (Zak Westfall), an American who visits Berlin to teach English, but mainly to write a book. On the incoming train, he befriends Ernst (Stephen Kaiser), who offers to help him find his way around the city – specifically, where to find the infamous Kit Kat Klub, where gender is unspecific and sex goes to the highest bidder. Telephones on the tables allow you to dial-a-man, woman, or whoever.
Cliff gets Sally on the line – and he’s hooked. She moves in with him, despite the landlady’s protestations. Things seem comfy and cozy at the start, with Cliff and Sally summing up their life in the song, “Perfectly Marvelous.”
But Berlin, Sally’s questionable lifestyle and Hitler’s growing prominence begin to bother Cliff. He wants to take Sally to America. Now pregnant and bored, she objects – and things go badly awry.
While Cliff, Sally and their crash-and-burn passion remain the focus of the play, there’s a more wholesome, truer, emotional subplot linking Fraulein Schneider (Lynn McNutt), the landlady of the building where Cliff has found a cheap flat, and Herr Schultz (Wayne LeGette), an innocent, lonely old Jewish fruit stand operator who feels he is safe from any political woes because, “after all, I’m a German.”
But even that isn’t enough.
Another tenant is hooker with a heart of gold, Fraulein Kost (Kathryn Johnston), whose sexual hijinks provide some edgy, comic relief.
The familiar songs by Kander and Ebb help move the action and elaborate on the characters. Sally sings “Don’t Tell Mama” that she’s working in a dingy dive and is not sequestered in a convent. The Emcee is front and center vocalizing “Two Ladies,” though he’s accompanied by a girl and a guy.
“Maybe This Time” is a thoughtful piece – sung with gusto by Sally and often associated with Liza Minnelli, famed for her film portrayal of Bowles. It precedes the goosestep beat of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” – the tune that opens the gates to the Nazi scourge.
This isn’t the first time FAU’s grad class has dealt with Nazi atrocities. Last year’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank trod similar ground, and just as well. Lee Soroko directs Cabaret, which stars, among others, Equity actors Lynn McNutt, Kathryn Johnston and Wayne LeGette, who work alongside students in the MFA theatre program who will soon enter the world of professional theater.
Others graduating next month are well-schooled players Erin Williams, who portrays dance hall girl Frenchie and also the gorilla in the Emcee’s “If You Could See Her (The Gorilla Song)”; Amanda Corbett as a dancer named Texas and Sean Patrick Gibbons, who plays one of the Kit Kat Boys in his FAU finale.
Other soon-to-be-grads are: Jessica Eaton, Rachel Finley and Gray West.
Musical accompaniment for the show is provided by a live band: Greg Brown, piano/conductor, Rick Kissinger and Mike Digregorio on reeds and Murph Aucamp on drums.
Cabaret plays through July 22 in the Studio One Theatre on FAU’s Boca Raton campus. Shows are on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.fauevents.com, by calling 561-297-6124 or at the box office in FAU’s Student Union, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.