By Khalida Sarwari
Behind the glitzy performances and glamorous costumes, “Cabaret” tells a story that is as relevant today as it was 51 years ago, according to the cast of the national tour set to arrive at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday.
Directed by Sam Mendes and co-directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall, the revival of the timeless musical brings together a cast of veteran actors who breathe life into the infamous Kit Kat Klub, a seedy nightclub where the Emcee (Jon Peterson), Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin) and a raucous ensemble take the stage nightly to perform song-and-dance routines to audiences that at times include even members of the Third Reich.
Peterson, a U.K. native who is well known for his roles on London’s West End, including “Cats,” “A Chorus Line” and “The Sound of Music,” said the Emcee is a complicated character who acts as fate.
He “turns pages of the scenes as they unfold,” he said. “He’s instigating the events like a little puppet character, pulling the strings.”
Peterson has been involved with “Cabaret” in one form or another since 1998, a year after moving to the United States to further his career in theater. Of all the shows he’s done, he said “Cabaret” remains one of the few that keeps him inspired. He likened the story to a Shakespearean work.
“I’ve done about seven productions (of ‘Cabaret’) on and off,” he said. “It’s kind of like Shakespeare; so beautifully written. There isn’t a superfluous word in the script. It’s a brilliant piece.
“What Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall did is they took the script and anything that was buttoned up in the 1960s, they made it honest,” Peterson added. “It’s always relevant, because it talks about fascism. It kind of has a resonance with what is going on here and in Europe. It’s a very cautionary tale but, of course, wrapped in a funny comedy.”
Alison Ewing will step into the shoes of Fräulein Kost after playing Lulu in the 1998 Broadway production. Fräulein Kost is the oldest dancer in the Kit Kat Klub and an accordion player. Ewing described her character as a deep and dark individual, and one she enjoyed playing.
“She is kind of a woman of the night, and she’s always sneaking failures in and out of her house,” she said. “She sort of aligns herself with a kind of a very bad man. He’s actually the Nazi in the show, and this show in the end turns out to be about what each individual character does to survive in that time, 1930s Berlin. It’s a deep and complicated show with a political background, which makes it juicy and fun to play.”
Ewing, who’s originally from Mason City, Iowa, but now calls Mill Valley home, has been involved in several renditions of “Cabaret” since 1998. Even nearly 20 years later, she is still challenged by the show, she said. While on the surface it looks like an entertaining and fun piece with an iconic score, the story of “Cabaret” remains as powerful and important as ever, she said.
“This particular show is so important now, because it is set on this dangerous political background with the people of its time polarized,” said Ewing. “It makes you really reflect about what’s going on in our country right now, so even though it’s about the ’30s and even though it was 50 years ago, it’s still very, very relevant today politically, and it really leaves you deeply thinking as you leave the theater.”
Rounding out the cast are Larkin, who will be making her “Cabaret” debut as Sally Bowles, Benjamin Eakeley as Clifford Bradshaw, Mary Gordon Murray as Fräulein Schneider, Scott Robertson as Herr Schultz and Patrick Vaill as Ernst Ludwig. Every character in the show plays an instrument, said Ewing.
“We are the orchestra; we are playing all the music, so when we’re not dancing we’re playing our instruments,” she said. “Every person on the show is on stage the whole time.”
“Cabaret” premiered on Broadway in 1966 and went on to win numerous Tony Awards, among them best musical and best score. The memorable song list by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff includes “Cabaret,” “Willkommen” and “Maybe This Time.”
The production is based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play, “I Am a Camera,” which was adapted from the short novel “Goodbye to Berlin” by Christopher Isherwood.
BT McNicholl serves as the director on tour, while Cynthia Onrubia is in charge of choreography. The design team includes set design by Robert Brill, costume design by William Ivey Long, lighting by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari and sound by Keith Caggiano.
Produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the national tour kicked off in Providence, Rhode Island, in January 2016. The San Jose engagement is presented as part of Broadway San Jose’s 2016-17 season.
“Cabaret” runs June 6-11 at the Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $43-$128 at ticketmaster.com, 800-982-ARTS (2787) or the City National Civic Box Office, 150 W. San Carlos St., San Jose. For more information, including the performance schedule, visit cabaretmusical.com.