BY JAIME ZAHL – BROADWAY WORLD
CM Performing Arts Center is greeting audiences with a sly “Willkommen” this month with their latest production of Kander and Ebb’s mid-20th century classic musical “Cabaret.” The musical was last produced on CM’s stage in 2004 at the tail-end of the provocative Broadway revival starring Alan Cumming. Now, almost 20 years later, first time CM director Andrew J Beck is ready to present audiences with an eerily timely take on the poignant and unapologetically grimmusical.
Mr. Beck – a prolific actor and director across Long Island – is no stranger to “Cabaret.” He performed in three separate productions of the musical, but now he is realizing his desire to direct the piece.
“I wanted to direct it, especially in such a special theatre like this, because it has an important, unique message and conveying that message is very cathartic,” he said. “Divisive, controversial theatre that pushes the limit is what excites me and draws me in and Cabaret is definitely one of those shows.”
“Cabaret” opened on Broadway in 1966 under the direction of Harold Prince, who would earn his place as an icon in musical theatre history with renowned credits such as Sweeney Todd, Evita, and Phantom of the Opera. Based on Christopher Isherwood‘s Berlin Stories, the musical is set in the sleazy Kit Kat Klub on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power in Weimar Germany and portrays the interlocking stories of a cabaret singer, a writer from America, and the denizens of Berlin.
Despite its eventual acclaim and respected place in musical theatre history, the show faced harsh criticism for its “immoral” subject matter upon its arrival on Broadway. However, it paved the way for the future of concept musicals with a central message prioritized over plot. The musical would find new life through Bob Fosse‘s film adaptation starring Liza Minelli and subsequent revivals – the first, also directed by Prince, in 1987 – that allowed the creators to revise the show, ultimately improving the piece.
Evidenced by the 1993 Sam Mendes directed revival, which set the entire show on the Kit Kat Club’s stage, the musical has proven to be a piece that lends itself to innovation. Mr. Beck said he approached the material with the musical’s origins in mind. He explained that Kander and Ebb ” took a lot of cues from old German cabarets and musicals” and the theatrical techniques of Bertolt Brecht, the influential German dramatist. Mr. Beck focused on the use “Verfremdungseffeckt” – defined by alientation and distancing – in his direction.
“This forces an audience to really take a step back and intellectualize what is happening on stage,” he explained. “When you see a character breaking the fourth wall or seeing an actor do a scene change, these are examples of that distancing. We are utilizing this technique a lot in this show. The history, the story and the numbers all intertwine to create this creepy, hellish universe.”
Despite its Jazz Age setting, Mr. Beck suggested the politically driven musical remains timely in today’s climate where discussion of fascism is ongoing in the media.
“The characters in this musical are having a great time in this debaucherous place, when all around them, Naziism is growing and political unrest is right around the corner,” he said. “Some characters know this and are vigilant, some are indifferent to this, and some are powerless to stop this from greatly affecting their lives. Disenfranchised Germans were clamoring for political change at this point and this fascist figure promised that he would fix all of this.”
Mr. Beck said he is thrilled and grateful for the opportunity to direct “Cabaret” at CM in particular. He performed in 5 productions at the venue and regards the theatre as a “very supportive space.”
“CM is a very special theatre to me.”
“Cabaret” runs at CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale September 17 – October 1