Willkommen to the Cabaret: Inside Skidmore’s Main Stage Production
(Photo taken from Skidmore Theatre’s website)
The JKB main stage has been entirely transformed into the smoky, sexy, and claustrophobic Kit Kat Klub that lives and breathes behind Cabaret, the first musical Skidmore Theatre has done in seven years. Women walk around wearing silky nude clothing; the men are shirtless in suspenders and trousers. Everyone is instructed to engage with audience members sitting at the cafe tables, which have been built into the actual stage.
When asked for comment, Heidi, played by Jonah Harrison ‘22, said “Well, my boss [explicit] sucks and I have to do this everyday but I love being sexy so it all works out.” Rosie, played by Sophia Bella Cucci ‘20, says “I obviously am the best dancer in the Kit Kat Klub and it’s very frustrating. I try to teach them the dances and they can’t do what I want.” The music — which has been coming out of the visible pit this whole time — picks up, and the Emcee, Julian Tushabe ‘22, finds his way on stage for the show to begin.
The musical Cabaret is based off of a play called I Am a Camera, which was inspired by the series The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood, who wrote three books about his time in Germany. Each rendition of the tale is sure to describe the Klub as claustrophobic, especially mid-winter in Germany. To accommodate this, the JKB has been redesigned, and is nearly unrecognizable. The crew built the set way out, and the aforementioned cafe tables help create this mood.
Director John Michael DiResta has been wanting to do the timeless musical for years, his list of shows-to-do ever growing. The attraction to Cabaret comes from its subject matter: “Cabaret is a play about refugees, in a lot of different ways. It’s a play about people who have been displaced from the places they come from, for a variety of different reasons — whether it is a more traditional ethnic purging that happened with the Jews of Eastern Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, or it’s someone like Cliff who is in many ways a sexual refugee because he’s queer.”
With such resonating themes, it might seem natural for DiResta to do a modern adaptation of the story — to use modern dress, modern set, modern everything — however the director said they were very adamant to steer away from that. “This is a period piece; it takes place on New Year’s Eve in 1929, it’s very specific about that. What we decided was that the dance and the movement would be our connection to the contemporary world to remind people that the issues of the play still really resonate.”
Watching the first act it is clear the choreography is militaristic and strong, something done purposefully by choreographer and professor Erika Pujič. “The dance that Erika has choreographed shows the strength of women much more than it shows the sexiness — the sexiness then doubles down on that, but it leads into sultriness with strength,” explained DiResta.
For Tushabe, inhabiting the iconic role of the Emcee was difficult, and demanded reinvention at every turn. According to the talented first year, “After legends like Joel Grey and Alan Cumming had such iconic portrayals of it I had to try and avoid imitating them but instead create a whole new Emcee.” Nonetheless, Tushabe found his footing in the play’s timeless nature.
“I think Cabaret was specifically chosen here because among the many themes in the show, indifference and hate are extremely prevalent,” he explained. “It’s very common to see people do or say nothing when they notice something wrong because it doesn’t directly affect them. Cabaret shows the danger in that kind of mentality in a very powerful way.”
Throughout the tireless months of rehearsal and run throughs, DiResta focused on creating a sense of agency among the actors, crew, and designers. He explained that the group talked a lot about self-care, and listening to what certain actors wanted or did not want to do, saying “I think we have a more interesting show because of it.”
Because the play is immensely vulnerable — both in theme and dress — it was important for DiResta to have a female-identifying costume designer.
“I really turned over the reigns of what people were wearing both to her and to the cast. I was really clear that I wanted the cast to come on stage with something they were comfortable in, so the cast had a lot of say in that. It is really vulnerable, as theatre should be. It’s really provocative and it’s really electric. The short answer is that the cast takes care of each other beautifully.”
Cabaret is a dark musical; it is no 42 Street (the quintessential “jukebox musical”) or Avenue Q (which relies on puppets). It’s gritty and twisted and bold and — according to DiResta — the perfect American musical. “It has one of the best books of musicals ever written,” he said. “I think it’s one of the best scores ever written – ‘Maybe this Time’ is the best song ever written for a musical. I also think that is unusual formally — it’s a play that sort of sets up its rules and then breaks them in its own way.”
With opening night under their belt, and shows flowing into next weekend, Cabaret should not be missed — if not for the sheer joy that radiates from the cast’s ability to perform a musical, then for the timeless lessons Cabaret teaches. For Tushabe, it’s hoping “Cabaret urges audiences to vote every chance they get. Indifference is just as dangerous as making a bad decision. I hope this show makes audiences more conscious of the wrongs they see in their daily lives and do nothing about.”
Cabaret opened April 12, 2019 and will be showing until April 20, 2019. Tickets can be purchased on the Skidmore Theatre website. Cafe Tables are selling fast.