Not your granddad’s ‘Cabaret’

By on October 22, 2014

Every writer has a novel. Whether it lives in the imagination or in print, every writer has a certain level of desire to write the great American novel. Clifford Bradshaw is no different, as I found out on the evening of Thursday, Oct. 16 when EPAC’s “Cabaret” opened. I also learned there is much, much more to this Broadway hit than I ever realized.

“Cabaret” feels more like a novel than musical theater. Clifford (Sean Deffley) is a traveling American writer looking for inspiration in Europe when he finds himself in Berlin at the outset of Nazi control. He accidentally befriends Ernst Ludwig (Preston Schreffler), which leads Bradshaw to the home of Fraulein Schneider (Tricia Corcoran) and eventually the Kit Kat Klub. The red-lit club is where — as theatergoers — we find ourselves when first walking into the Sharadin Bigler Theatre.

The female dancers, in their bloomers and bras, are stretching, warming up for this evening’s performance. The male members of the club are cohorting and flirting amongst themselves and the girls. As for the ladies, there is Texas (Alyse Dilts), Helga (Heidi Carletti), LuLu (Erin Brubaker), Rosie (Alyssa Miller), Frenchie (Meredith Stone), Kost (Elizabeth Kindbom), and the “star” of the Kit Kat Klub, Sally Bowles (Martha Wasser). Sally is a lost English woman who can never pry herself away from the idea that she is famous. Eventually Sally meets Clifford and the two fall into a strange, troubled love.

But, before anything can happen in “Cabaret,” the viewer needs to meet Emcee, the catalyst of the show. Nick Smith shares center stage as Emcee, who resembles Perry Farrell if he was cast in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” Smith is incredible as Emcee and rivals the masterful Broadway revival performance by Alan Cumming. He is creepy, delightful, and sensual all at once. The highpoint of his performance comes during the climactic performance of “I Don’t Care Much.” Before this gut wrenching routine, Emcee is the bit of comic relief all while hinting at a more disastrous turn the story eventually takes. The prime example of this is in Act 2 with “If You Could See Her,” where Emcee professes his love for a gorilla, played masterfully by EPAC regular Brandon Kegerize.

Sally, portrayed by Martha Wasser, croons in the spotlight during the EPAC production of “Cabaret.” (Photos provided by EPAC)

Sally, portrayed by Martha Wasser, croons in the spotlight during the EPAC production of “Cabaret.” (Photos provided by EPAC)

Kegerize also plays Cabaret Boy Herman and is joined by Victor (Alexander P. Bannon), Bobby (Kyle McCleary), and Hans (Alex Weaver) to create a sexually charged crew who poke bits of detail into the story. Weaver also plays one of Emcee’s love interests in the “Two Ladies” scene. This scene shows how masterful and creative the entire EPAC crew can be when tasked to provide a provocative storyline. By using strobe lights and a backlit screen Emcee and his partners enter into some fantastic frivolity drawing from the crowd cheers and guffaws. If it weren’t for the red lights overhead, each seat in the theater would be able to see each other blush.

Notwithstanding the presence of Emcee, EPAC’s version of “Cabaret” is a tale of two other voices. The vocal abilities of Corcoran and Wasser are nothing short of phenomenal. And this is not only my opinion; accolades for their abilities whispered through the theater as people were moved, awed, and inspired by their performance. Wasser’s voice during “Maybe This Time” near the end of Act 1 is probably the biggest and most beautiful voice I’ve heard on the EPAC stage. She commanded the room and sent chills through me and many others I expect.

As the story winds through the many relationships, we are reminded of how prevalent heartbreak is in our lives. Nothing to that point is more poignant than Corcoran’s delivery during “What Would You Do?” Dejected and lost, we stumble into the end of the performance, prodded by a voice amazingly beautiful yet delivering a tale of woe we do not want to believe — but, we must.

This musical has come a long way since penned. The original 1966 version is more vaudevillian, while EPAC presents a tawdry, cutting edge performance as you would expect from a theater that brought Lancaster County “Spring Awakening.” This is not a copy of the 1972 motion picture starring Liza Minnelli; far from it actually. Director Edward R Fernandez used the 1996 Sam Mendes reprisal as inspiration and absolutely nailed a solid interpretation of the story. Here, this story is more effective on the intimate EPAC stage, almost as if it was made for a smaller scale. Fernandez writes in the playbill for the show: “As for whose story it is, it could be Sally’s, it could be [Emcee’s], it could be Cliff’s … it is whoever’s story you wish it to be.” This is so true.

“Cabaret” is an intriguing show. It feels half empty, but at the same time overflowing. It is a classic piece of American theater in so much as it lends itself to reformulation and gives directors the ability to revise the meaning based on current culture. What was the norm in 1966 surely is not the norm today, but the message of Cabaret remains constant — love and let live. Although the scene is set prior to World War II, the messages conveyed in “Cabaret” are both apropos and necessary today.

“Cabaret,” like all great theater, sticks with you. With this show, both the ideals and music resonate. For days after seeing “Cabaret” I was walking around humming or singing the show’s lead number, “Willkommen.” Thoughts of how to better treat my fellow man streamed into my consciousness. Maybe I should finally write that novel. “Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome, / Im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret!” Inspiring!

Sally and the Cabaret Girls, during a lavish production number.

Sally and the Cabaret Girls, during a lavish production number.

“Cabaret” will be performed at EPAC through Nov. 2. A full list of times and dates, as well as a link to purchase tickets, can be found at ephrataperformingartscenter.com or by calling 733-7966.

Michael C. Upton works as a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure covering subjects ranging from funk punk to fine wine. He invites your comments and suggestions at 354-0609.

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