Idaho Shakespeare Festival produces ‘Cabaret’, but it’s not a comedy

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By Dana Oland – doland@idahostatesman.com
Copyright: © 2011 Idaho Statesman
Published: 07/08/11

Most people think of “Cabaret” as Bob Fosse’s eight-Academy Award-winning movie starring Liza Minnelli. As Sally Bowles, Minnelli performs one show-stopping number after another, and the film is sprinkled with Hollywood glitz and glam.
This ain’t that.
Jodi Dominick* and Eduardo Placer*, Photo by Shawn Raecke of Idaho Statesman
The Idaho Shakespeare Festival will open its production of Sam Mendes’ stripped-down, edgier version of the musical this weekend. Director Victoria Bussert says that his adaptation gets closer to the truth in many ways.
“Sam Mendes went back to the original sources and really respected what Weimar Germany was all about: this incredible time of sexual freedom and artistic innovation that was completely demolished by the Nazis,” Bussert says.
“We’re not pulling any punches,” Bussert says.
“Cabaret” is filled with some of the most iconic Broadway songs such as “Willkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Money.” The title song, Bowles’ emphatic invitation to live life to the fullest, is a kind of anthem.
If you’re getting the sense that this is not a musical comedy, you’d be right. With a funny and ironic first act, and a bitingly tragic second, Bussert’s “Cabaret” fits comfortably in the slot normally occupied by a “King Lear” or “Othello.”
The musical takes place against the rise of the Nazis in post-war Berlin. One of the central themes that people will ignore and rationalize changes in the political tide keeps the piece timely, Bussert says.
“It’s incredible how we keep repeating the pattern. It’s weird and unfortunate that this keeps going on,” she says.
Jodi Dominick plays Sally Bowles. She meets an American writer, Clifford Bradshaw (Neil Brookshire), who came to explore questions of his own.
They fall in love and find it difficult to navigate the distance between their two worlds.
The show deals with sexual themes and adult topics, so it’s recommended for ages 14 and older.
Bowles’ character is one of the pillars of musical theater.
“There is nothing else like her,” Dominick says. “It’s so rare to have a character that has so much going on, all the time. She has amazing songs, incredible scenes, an incredible story, and the depths are bottomless.”
Dominick sees her Sally as an innocent trying to negotiate an increasingly evil world.
“I see her as very wide-eyed and unpredictable,” she says.
Dominick draws on icons such as Louise Brooks and Berlin’s Girlkulture — which empowered women to own their own sexuality — rather than Minnelli’s take on the character.
The dance numbers will turn away from the Fosse influence, too, says choreographer Gregory Daniels.
“‘Mein Herr’ does give little nod to Fosse, but after that I went away from it,” Daniels says. “We get rid of the chairs. I don’t like to recreate. With talking about how we want the plot to go, we came up with these numbers that keep pushing it forward.”
The show has a long cultural lineage to draw on, and Bussert and Daniels, who are colleagues at Baldwin-Wallace College, did extensive research for the production.
American writer Christopher Isherwood visited Berlin in 1930, when Germany was nearing the end of a great cultural renaissance of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). Historians consider it one of the highest points of creative and intellectual achievement in human history. Scientists, mathematicians, artist, filmmakers and performers all made significant discoveries and innovations.
Cabaret was a dominant art form, where people went to explore their sexuality and forms of artistic expression, Bussert says.
“It’s interesting that it still feels so edgy in 2011,” she says.
Isherwood’s “The Berlin Stories,” based on his experience, inspired John van Druten’s play “I Am a Camera.” That, in turn inspired Joe Masteroff, Fred Ebb and John Kander to write the musical “Cabaret.”
But the early Broadway and Hollywood versions softened the material. Director Sam Mendes (who would later direct the film “Chicago: The Musical”) went back to the well for his “Cabaret.”
Mendes staged his production in the old Studio 54 nightclub, that was set with cabaret tables near the front of the stage, just like the ISF amphitheater.
Some tables will become part of the action, as the girls from the Kit Kat Klub — the show’s core of dancers — wait on them.
Dana Oland: 377-6442
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