'Cabaret' Puts Broadway on Hennepin

City PagesBy: Sheila Regan January 15, 2014

All-local production of the classic musical brings Broadway glam to the Pantages.

Right this way, your table’s waiting — the dark and sexy musical “Cabaret,” about a seedy nightclub in Berlin prior to World War II, is now playing at the Pantages Theatre. The show precedes the Broadway revival of “Cabaret,” which previews in March in New York. This Minneapolis production aims to compete with other touring Broadway shows, in hopes of proving that a locally produced musical can provide top-notch entertainment.

This “Cabaret” is a joint production of Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust, as part of their Broadway Re-Imagined series. The partnership provides an opportunity for Twin Cities actors to perform on the Theatre Trust’s historic stages. Kira Lace Hawkins, who plays showgirl Sally Bowles, likens the growing interest in locally produced theater to the local-food movement. “I just think it’s a more sustainable model that is beneficial to the local artists here and to our audiences,” she said. “There’s something to be said for seeing your neighbor onstage in this capacity.”

The partnership also allows Theatre Latté Da to tackle shows it might not otherwise. “From our beginning we’ve always done big musicals on a really small budget,” said Latté Da artistic director Peter Rothstein, “but there are some shows — ‘Cabaret’ being one of them — I real­ly wasn’t interested in doing a really scaled down version of.”

Rothstein thinks of “Cabaret” as the first major “concept” musical, which he defines as a musical “where the idea or the thematic point of view is as important if not more so than the narrative plot.” “Cabaret,” which portrays a community turning a blind eye to the hatred of a rising Nazi Germany, paved the way for other concept musicals, Rothstein said.

Based on the play “I Am a Camera,” which itself was based on Christopher Isherwood’s short novel “Goodbye to Berlin,” “Cabaret” was first produced in 1966. It’s been revived numerous times, and each time, the central character of Clifford Bradshaw — who is based in part on Isherwood himself — “has been outed over history,” Rothstein said.

Though original director Hal Prince felt that audiences couldn’t handle a gay character in 1966, when he revived the production in 1987, Clifford became more “sexually ambiguous,” Rothstein said. By the time Sam Mendes directed a Broadway revival in the 1990s, Cliff “definitely was a bisexual character,” said Rothstein.

Rothstein was only interested in doing “Cabaret” if he could obtain the Mendes version. This version includes some songs from the 1973 film version with Liza Minnelli, and cuts some of the original songs that were more in the style of the previous generation.

Rothstein said “Cabaret” has a clear divide between the cabaret scenes and the “book” scenes, or what happens in the main story. Often, Rothstein explained, the cabaret songs comment thematically on what’s happening in the story. In Rothstein’s vision, the audience acts as a character during the cabaret scenes, as if they are actually in the audience of the Kit Kat Klub. In the book scenes, however, they act more as voyeurs. “I really want to stress the idea that we are a voyeur in the theater,” he said. “So we got rid of all the curtains — there’s no masking. You see the crew guys, people putting on makeup — everything is exposed.”

Rothstein is interested in the progression of the cabaret. When the audience first enters the evening, they are “feeling like this is really fun and sexy and smart,” Rothstein said. “You’re kind of titillated by it all.” As the play progresses, however, the audience begins to sit back and judge what is happening.

Just as any production of “Cabaret” must contend with the iconic movie images of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, so Bob Fosse’s famous choreography lingers in the cultural memory of the musical. Rothstein said choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell offers “hints of Fosse,” along with jazz dance and elements of circus. The performer playing the Emcee, Tyler Michaels, is “ridiculously talented,” Rothstein said, so much of the choreography is catered to showing off his virtuosity as a tap dancer and gymnast. The choreography, like the costumes, is “incredibly sexy,” Rothstein said.

While some versions of “Cabaret” cast Sally Bowles as a non-singer (some critics charged that Minnelli was actually too good), Rothstein felt that while it’s one thing to write in a novel that a character is a bad singer, it’s another thing to put the audience through listening to one. “We definitely cast a singer,” he said of Hawkins. “It’s one of the most difficult roles in musical theater. It’s such a complicated character and she’s gotta sing — it’s really demanding material. We auditioned that role really hard, and Kira’s great.”

Theater Latté Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust have teamed up previously on “All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914,” produced each holiday season since 2008, and “Aida,” the first production in the Broadway Re-Imagined series. Hennepin Theatre Trust president Tom Hoch says striking up a partnership at this level was something that the Trust has wanted to do for some time. “We were looking for the right opportunity,” he said.

Usually, the Trust either rents one of its theaters (including the State, Orpheum and Pantages) to a large touring show or acts as a presenter, where it acquires a show and markets it, taking a risk on its success. With Broadway Re-Imagined, however, the Trust actually co-produces the show, and shares with Latté Da a financial stake in the outcome.

“We are about arts-inspired community and cultural development,” Hoch said. “One way to do that is to bring in touring shows. The other way is to produce shows that utilize local casts. We felt like we had gotten really good at the Broadway touring piece. We thought, Can we do something where it involves local people?” Since the Trust already has a built-in audience for touring Broadway productions, the question became: How could it extend that audience to local productions and support local theater?

“If we are successful, we are growing audiences for local productions,” Hoch said