Saturday, February 3, 2024

"Cabaret" by Theatre 55 at Mixed Blood Theatre

Cabaret is one of my favorite musicals. I've seen it on stage many times, but it's been almost ten years since I saw a production of it, so it's beyond time to see it again. As usual, Theatre 55 brings a whole new perspective to the beloved and familiar piece by populating the world with people age 55 and better. These performers have lived through, if not the rise of Nazism in 1930s Berlin (that would be Theater 95), then many difficult, tumultuous, divisive times in this country and around the world. Facing another contentious and vitally important election cycle, 2024 is the perfect time to bring back Kander and Ebb's brilliant musical, that lures you in with a funny, sexy, gorgeous show, and then punches you in the gut with the ugly reality of what hate, fear, and bigotry can do. I interviewed Director Richard Hitchler and star Prudence Johnson on an episode of Twin Cities Theater Chat, and it was a pleasure to talk about the meaning of this piece, as well as Theater 55's important work of fighting agism and "enriching the lives of elders as artists, audiences, and lifelong learners." This especially poignant but still super fun Cabaret has only six performances left, several of which are sold out, so don't snooze on getting tickets, or you may be left sitting alone in your room instead of going to the cabaret, where everything is beautiful.

The 1966 musical Cabaret is based on Christopher Isherwood's semi-autobiographical novel about Berlin in the early 1930s. Much of the action is set in a cabaret called the Kit Kat Klub, a mecca of art, creativity, music, love, sexuality, expression, joy, and life, at a time just before the beautiful city of Berlin entered the darkest period in its history, which resulted in the death of all of these things. This world is seen through the eyes of an American writer named Cliff, who moves to Berlin to work on his novel. He soon meets Sally Bowles, the star of the Kit Kat Klub, and begins a complicated relationship with her. He also befriends his landlord Fräulein Schneider and the other residents of the boarding house. They're happy for a while living in the decadence of the time, until reality comes crashing down around them. As Cliff says, "It was the end of the world, and I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both asleep."*

the Kit Kat Klub (photo by Dan Norman)
Part of Theatre 55's mission is to pair novice performers with professionals, but what some may lack in experience they make up for with heart, sincerity, and passion. Everyone on stage is fully committed to telling this story, and bringing their whole life experience to it. The Kit Kat girls and boys are indeed beautiful, if not in the limited way that society tells us is beautiful, then in the way that real people of varied ages and body types, who are comfortable and confident in their bodies, are. As a newly 50-year-old woman, these are my role models for aging; I want to be like them when I grow up.

Prudence Johnson as Sally Bowles (photo by Dan Norman)
Our Sally Bowles, Prudence Johnson, has decades of experience performing, but more in the music world than the theater world. She admitted on the podcast that she wasn't that familiar with Cabaret previously, but when she read the script, she was all in. While acting in scenes may be a new skill she's learning, performing songs is storytelling, and she brings all of her experience to this show. Each song ("Don't Tell Mama," "Mein Herr," "Maybe This Time") is a full and complete story unto itself, and her performance of the closing title song is a showstopper, full of such gut-wrenching emotion accumulated not just from the two hours of the musical, but from a whole life.

Rik Kutcher as the Emcee (photo by Dan Norman)
But really, the star of the show is the Emcee, an almost constant presence who introduces us to this world and wryly observes it. Rik Kutcher is so fantastic in the role, just everything you want the Emcee to be. He's funny and sexy, and also deadly serious in some of the more sobering numbers. Other highlights include Jeff Goodson as Cliff, Jeff Bieganek as the mysterious Ernst (with a consistent German accent, and some German spoken as well), Lisa Ramos as the boarding house resident prostitute Frau Kost, and the endearing Brenda Starr and Lawrence Hutera as Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (the latter with another great accent), who actually are the appropriate age for these characters, their late-in-life romance surprisingly sweet.

The large cast fills the Mixed Blood stage, but doesn't feel crowded. LaTia Childers has choregraphed some great dance numbers that are doable for all abilities, and still fun to watch. The beautiful six-piece orchestra, directed by Shirley Mier on keys, is center stage, in costume, and very much a part of the show. Characters are dressed in shabby glam sexy costumes (designed by Alicia Vegell), and these actors wear them well, proving there's no limit to what you can wear at any age if you believe it.

As my friend Kendra said after the show - when will this show not be relevant? The rise of a cruel dictator due to intolerance, hate, fear, and indifference is apparently a lesson we need to learn over and over again. Sally chillingly says, "It's just politics - what does that have to do with us?" Cabaret shows us (as does recent experience) that politics has everything to do with us, and our daily lives and how we're able to live them. Theatre 55's show ends with some advice from our wise elders (whom we would be wise to listen to), about making our voices heard and standing up for what we believe in. An important message, delivered in a fun, beautiful, entertaining package.