Cabaret has stood the test of time — wowing audiences since its smash hit 1966 Broadway debut, an Academy Award-winning 1972 film and the countless revivals and reimaginings that have included such stars as Alan Cumming, Michelle Williams and Liza Minelli. Cabaret is gearing up to wow Charleston audiences once again as the College of Charleston (CofC) Department of Theatre and Dance presents the show April 14-16 at the Sottile Theater.
“The musical Cabaret, in part due to my early experiences in Germany, has always had a special resonance with me,” said Todd McNerney, director and Associate Dean of the CofC School of the Arts. “I have seen the play many times, most recently the College of Charleston’s 2005 production directed by our late colleague, Robert Ivey. And while I was too young to see the film in theaters in 1972, I fondly recall watching Liza Minelli on network television in the late 1970s.”
The John Kander and Fred Ebb musical is set in Berlin in the late 1920s as the jazz age comes to a close and the Nazi party tightens its grip over Germany. American writer Cliff Bradshaw arrives in the country as events take a dark turn and strikes up a relationship with cabaret starlet Sally Bowles after seeing her perform at the Kit Kat Klub.
The setting and story of the musical, which includes a subplot about the doomed romance between an elderly German boarding house owner and her boyfriend, a Jewish fruit vendor, evoke the growing paranoia and horror of Berlin under the Nazi regime.
McNerney toured the concentration camp at Dachau as a teenager, and speaks of it as an experience that shaped him as a person: “I have never forgotten walking around the lightly dusted snow-covered grounds on an overcast dreary day, entering through the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work sets you free) gate, silently visiting the barracks and finally, the Krematorium. Everywhere the very tangible reminders of the horrors and atrocities of the Holocaust were gut wrenching.”
Those horrors were evoked in the 2005 Ivey production of Cabaret, which ended with the ensemble seemingly being led into the Krematorium as the curtain fell. McNerney and musical director Laura Turner, alongside a design team that includes student costume designer Mira Turkewitz and alumni lighting designer Garrett Bell, aren’t trying to recreate that earlier version. “I am not sure there is any specific element from that production that informed my choices in this one — other than I hope this production is equally moving and memorable,” McNerney said.
Senior theatre arts major AP Hart joins a long line of acclaimed performers who have played the emcee. The character is the maestro of the Kit Kat Klub, the setting for most of the show’s beloved musical numbers. It’s a role Hart has been obsessing over.
“I found out we were doing this a year ago and I started listening and watching interviews of other people and watching other performances of as many different emcees as I could and trying to see what their process was,” Hart said.
Hart serves as the shop assistant for CofC’s theater department, and thus helped oversee construction of the set when not onstage, in addition to perfecting the songs and dance numbers with choreography by Nakeisha Daniel. Despite the heavy workload, Hart radiates excitement when talking about tackling a role that won Joel Grey the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1973.
“If you listen, the emcee is almost always just commenting on what just happened,” Hart said. “That commentary goes from satire to serious. There’s almost this bitterness to the emcee. I think there’s a part of them that’s, for lack of a better word, disgusted with the audience — that they find this entertaining. I think the emcee kinda knows what’s going on behind the scenes.”
As a senior, this will be Hart’s last, and most rewarding role as a CofC student. “I’ve been acting since I was a freshman in high school,” they said. “I think this is probably the role I have felt the most artistic freedom. I don’t know if that’s because I’m finally starting to get to the point where I realize this is all about taking risks and just playing and seeing what works and what doesn’t. Or if it’s because it’s my last one and I’m leaving after this.”
The enthusiastic student cast includes Maddy Smith as Sally Bowles and Noah Anderson as Cliff Bradshaw — a crew that will inevitably bring its own fresh take to an iconic show. “Working with college-age actors has of course fueled me for nearly 25 years,” McNerney said. “What they bring is newness, discovery, energy and enthusiasm.”
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