Life is a ‘Cabaret,’ old chum

University’s Thrust Theatre – all of it – hosts the beautiful, bawdy musical

by Katie Wilber

By day, the Rarig Center’s Thrust Theatre is a classroom. By night, it becomes a 1930s Berlin nightclub full of love affairs and provocative behavior.

Welcome to “Cabaret,” a musical set in the dark, smoky scene of a nightclub as the Nazi party slowly grows in power and influence.

The dancing, singing and acting company has been in rehearsals since February, and tonight the University culminates its celebration of 75 years of theater and 20 years of dance with its staging of “Cabaret.”

Director Barbra Berlovitz spent about three years in the theatre department’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program before leaving to study with Jacques LeCoq, a performer known for his methods of physical theater, in 1971. Now she’s the artistic director of Minneapolis’ Theatre de la Jeune Lune.

“Luverne (Seifert, of the theatre department) called me up, told me they were doing ‘Cabaret’ and said they wanted alumni to work on the different projects,” she said.

Berlovitz isn’t working in any shows at the Jeune Lune right now, which gives her the extra time she needs to focus on “Cabaret.”

“It’s a great opportunity to be here, and I don’t say that lightly,” she said. “It’s great to work with this age group.”

When it comes to musical theater, more often than not the original stage scripts are nothing like the movie versions, and “Cabaret” is no exception.

“The show is called ‘Cabaret,’ not ‘Sally Bowles,’ ” Berlovitz said, in reference to the 1972 movie version of the musical that starred Liza Minnelli. While Bowles still is a main character in the show, the stage version doesn’t revolve around her alone.

The stage version of the show is almost a parable about the rise of Nazism and how the country responded to the danger and the violence, Berlovitz said.

Berlovitz decided to turn the entire theater into the cabaret, and we’re not just talking about the stage. Some scenes are set in an apartment and, unlike other versions that would use a set change to switch between scenes, Berlovitz left the apartment in the cabaret.

“I wanted to keep the atmosphere of the cabaret throughout the entire show,” she said, and it almost becomes a show within a show. Sometimes cast members wander through the audience or even take a seat to watch some of the action before heading back up on stage.

The Thrust Theatre also presents a challenge, but it’s a challenge that Berlovitz readily accepts. At first, the department was going to stage the show in the Proscenium Theatre across the hall – a proscenium theater looks more like a gigantic television screen – but they called Berlovitz and asked if she’d mind directing the show in the Thrust Theatre, which juts out into the audience.

“I loved the idea of doing the show in the Thrust Theatre,” she said, “but it’s a hard space. We’re learning how to play with it.”

Senior theater major Ryan Lear plays Cliff, the American man who has a love affair with Sally.

“Compared to the movie, this show creates a darker and heavier note,” Lear said, “and it ends on a downer. It’s a high-energy ending, but there’s still an ominous feeling.”

Despite the overhanging sense of darkness and despair, the script, the songs and the dancing require energy from everyone involved, which means the mood on set can’t be too gloomy.

“Cabaret” is a demanding show both vocally and physically, said musical director David Saffert.

“It’s a huge challenge,” he said. “I’ve had the dancers jog around while they’re singing in order to prepare for the performances.”

Saffert says he loves the music, and it’s hard to believe there’s some serious drama going on because the music is “so much fun.”

When the show starts, however, Saffert is the only one of Berlovitz’s design team who stays with the show. He’ll be on stage the entire time directing his nine-piece orchestra, which includes a banjo and an accordion.

“This is the style of 1930s Germany,” he said, “even though we think of the banjo as a Southern instrument. It’s really cool.”

While dancing and singing at the same time is indeed a challenge, at least the music and choreography will have been practiced and rehearsed over and over again by the time the show opens tonight.

For Jairus Abts, though, it’s hard to know what he’s going to do. Sometimes he’s not even sure of it himself.

Abts is the emcee, the man who introduces the acts at the cabaret. He’s somewhat scripted, such as the music he sings and most of his stage directions, but his interactions with the audience will depend on the responses he gets from each particular audience.

“Each audience is an entirely different character,” he said, “and improvisational acting – sort of making it up as I go – is debilitating.”

But he knows his spontaneity is essential to the show even though he won’t have a real audience until the show opens.

At a rehearsal a week and a half ago, the seven dancers who make up the Kit Kat Girls followed the choreographer’s every move as bits and pieces of piano accompaniment floated through the air. Someone yelled for the stage manager while Berlovitz and Abts climbed around the set.

Then, while the choreographer worked with Sabrina Crews (who plays Sally Bowles) she sent the Kit Kat Girls over to a side of the stage to work on a difficult aspect of the choreography.

Other cast members trickled in and grabbed a seat to watch the rehearsal.

“Cabaret” is a challenging, high-energy piece of theater, but Berlovitz and the cast seem grateful for the opportunity to put their own twists on the classic piece.

Berlovitz pointed to the stage, where Crews and the Kit Kat Girls were back to rehearsing the bawdy song “Don’t Tell Mama.”

“How can you not love that?” she said.