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Come to the Cabaret at Theatre Cedar Rapids
Tony-winning musical continues to resonate with today’s audiences
Set during the rise of the Nazi regime and launched on Broadway in the middle of the Vietnam War, “Cabaret” continues to speak to audiences, inviting them inside the Kit Kat Club, where all are welcome to forget life for a while.
Theatre Cedar Rapids is transforming its 500-seat auditorium into an intimate, alluring nightclub for an immersive musical experience, opening Friday, Feb. 10, and continuing through March 5, 2023.
At the top of the show, the Emcee — the master of ceremonies, the master magician — will welcome all to “Leave your troubles outside! So, life is disappointing? Forget it! In here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful.”
If you go
Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: Feb. 10 to March 5, 2023; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $25 to $61; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or theatrecr.org/event/cabaret/2023-02-10/ Table seating: $150 to $200, click on show link for details
And in that role, Aaron Murphy is holding a giant metaphorical mirror in his hand.
“I see it as sort of a supernatural presence, the gatekeeper of the Kit Kat Club,” he said of the Emcee. “And we’re creating this little world that is reflective of what’s happening in real-time in Berlin, but in a not so serious way.
“I’m a bit of a conjurer, my Kit Kat kids — I call them kids, they’re all quite adults — but to me, they’re sort of my coven. It’s a lot of fun to play with.”
He uses “it” not in a gender non-specific way, but rather, in a non-human way.
“I think my Emcee is really more of an unearthly presence,” he said. “Or in another way, sort of a ghost, sort of a supernatural …”
“Like in your head,” added Catherine Blades, who plays Sally Bowles, the club’s star performer. “Like an imaginary friend, but creepy — and not creepy.”
“And not necessarily omnipotent,” Murphy said. “I/m conjuring things and then trying to reflect them back to today’s audience.”
So who comes to the Kit Kat Club?
“Who doesn't come to the Kit Kat Club,” said Murphy, 39, an interior designer who lives and works in Cedar Rapids. “It’s a bit of a seedy place.”
“The thing about this show is (when) it starts, everything is good and happy,” said Blades, 31, a Cedar Rapids native and Broadway veteran now finishing up a journalism degree at the University of Iowa.
“Berlin is seedy, but everybody loves that,” she said, “and people come there to explore that.”
It’s an all-inclusive environment dripping in sensuality, led by Bowles. Early in the action, the British chanteuse meets the rather naive American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Jason Millsap) at the club and boldly moves into his life, experiencing the kind of relationship that has eluded her through a series of bad choices, even if writer and showgirl don’t view their attraction in the same light.
“Cliff is coming to Berlin, and maybe to explore who he really is, because where he's been before is a little more uptight about your sexuality, how you dress, what you do,” Blades said. “The Kit Kat Club is a representation of that, and we’re all having a good time. There’s a lot of freedom — you’re not judgmental of people.
“And it slowly kind of changes. How I imagine it — it just starts to empty out,” she said. “It starts to be less fun. There’s (fewer) people coming. It just slowly starts to fade away. …
“(Hitler) is coming to power and Berlin is changing drastically,” she noted. “But there are still all these people that are different than the norm, and this is their space to escape. There’s a lot of danger in that in the end, but there’s so much freedom in the beginning. I think that’s what’s so great, but also sad, about this show.”
“One of the beautiful things about the musical is this club is really a symbolic world where the Master of Ceremonies kind of lures and seduces the audience into a sense of freedom and amusement, and this is done through dance and song and humor,” director Angie Toomsen added.
Blades and Murphy love the razzle dazzle choreography by Megan Helmers and Megan Robinson.
“There’s a little bit of (Bob) Fosse jazzy sex,” Murphy said. “ … And there is some tap in ‘Money,’ which is a wonderful song.”
Both are veteran actors, and after they both laughed about Murphy learning the words and choreography, he explained, “it’s complicated. It’s a lot of people moving in a small space.”
“Catherine and Aaron are consummate professionals,” Toomsen said. “They do the work and take 100 percent responsibility for their own artistry, and that is a luxury and an honor to experience as a director.”
Injecting so much fun with the show serves as a sleight of hand, and belies the serious undertones of the horrifying days and years to come.
“It’s so fun that we even drop our guard a little,” Toomsen said, “because the Emcee has other plans for us in terms of the exposure of larger looming truths, but they’re ones we don’t necessarily see coming, faced with the glitz and the dazzle and the surprising performances in front of us.”
That’s where the mirror comes into play.
“We’re in a very similar time,” she said, “a time of political extremism social unrest. There are very poignant parallels … in terms of the tension between social and behavioral strictures and full freedom of identity, and that makes ‘Cabaret’ feel just as current as it likely did when it was written.”
Drenched in color
This production’s massive scenery and costumes break the norms of the usual stark stage and screen visuals. This “Cabaret” is full of color.
“This is another wildly expressive creation by S. Benjamin Farrar, and it literally reaches into the audience with the installation of cabaret tables, and stairways crawling from the stage to the balcony,” Toomsen said. “The intention is that the audience feels encircled by the club, and yes, there is audience interaction for some of those tables sitting right up close near the Kit Kat girls. …
“We can’t 100 percent turn everything into cabaret tables, but just having a section of the theater who can interact with the Kit Kat girls and boys and feel like they’re that close to the action sort of extends to everyone in the theater.”
And it’s going to be drenched in color.
“The scenic art is going to present a mix of rich, gleaming, even smoldering colors and metallics; amber, glowing stairs; and these large-scale hand-painted women that were originally conceived as large goddesses, but who have become parts of Sally’s psyche and emotional truth in key moments in the show.
“All of that shimmering, colorful world is reflected in the costumes as well,” Toomsen added, “so this isn’t the black and white ‘Cabaret’ that some of the past Broadway productions have been.”
She’s also singing the praises of costume designers Jess Helberg and Joni Sackett.
“Every single number is like Vogue fashion show,” she said. “They put that much thought and detail into creating completely unique looks for each of the acts.
“Sometimes, the Kit Kat girls just wear the same thing throughout all of the numbers, and that makes sense for a different kind of production. But this production is maximal and expressive, and every single number is like a visual breath of fresh air.”
Adding color and audience immersion also helps pull the action from early 20th century foreshadowing into 21st century realities.
“We’re treating these performances as a bit of a magical ritual,” Toomsen said, “where the Emcee and his coven of stunning and talented girls and boys are actively working their charms on our modern audiences in real time. And part of that is through bold entertainment, part of it is through compelling storylines, and part of it is through a larger thematic undercurrent that reveals itself in a really breathtaking way at the end.
“That’s very much about the ways we distract ourselves from potentially frightening outcomes and realities in our world today.”
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