From the time second-century Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase “bread and circuses” to Childish Gambino’s recently released single “This Is America,” art that calls attention to humanity’s tendency to fall prey to the distraction of scandal, gossip, and entertainment rather than facing societal problems has yet to go out of style (or fade in resonance). The UCSB Department of Theater and Dance brings this idea to Santa Barbara stages with Joe Masteroff’s 1967 Tony Award–wining Cabaret, the iconic musical about surviving life in 1930s Berlin amid a crushing economic disaster and the rise of the Nazi Party. The musical invites audiences into the Kit Kat Klub, a nightspot offering an escape from the bleakness of reality with the illicit delights of the cultural underworld. The floor show stars the Kit Kat girls, international sensation Sally Bowles, and the slyly subversive Emcee, who tempt audiences with diversion while reminding them of the dangers of complacency.
“Cabaret is a masterwork and a genius mix of spoken and sung text,” said director Julie Fishell. “The world of the Kit Kat Klub … is a place to ‘leave your troubles outside’ [as the song lyric suggests] …. [It] serves up raucous, boozed-up, irreverent, sexy, and politically sharp entertainment.” Based on John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera, which is based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, Cabaret, according to Fishell, is “a manifesto to the horror of the Holocaust as a direct product of social apathy, denial, or willing participation. At every turn, the play confronts us with the direct question, ‘What would you do?’”
In preparation for the production, Fishell, who teaches acting and directing, prompted the student actors to consider this question and to project the implications into their performance to pay the question forward to the audience. “What would we have done?” Fishell asked. “What do we do today? What principles would we abandon in a heartbeat to save our hides?”
To fully envelop the audience into the Weimar fantasy, the Kit Kat Klub bursts into the audience on a thrust stage, which extends the seating area. “The Performing Arts Theater will seat under 100 as configured and provide an intimate, revealing experience for our audiences and performers alike,” explained Fishell. “I love the thrust configuration because it encourages actors to inhabit the story three-dimensionally and invites the audience into a three-dimensional world.”
Cabaret features a cast of 20 students from the theater and dance department, the music department, and beyond, including Cordelia Watson as English performer Sally Bowles and Kody Siemensma as the Emcee, the cabaret’s ringmaster. Design-wise, the production focuses on 1930s authenticity to create a dark, jazz fantasy on the edge of worldwide chaos.
For a department that produces musicals infrequently, Cabaret is an exciting foray into this distinctive type of theatrical experience. “There is a combustion of expression with music, dance, and acting uniquely experienced in a musical,” said Fishell; she credits choreographer Christina McCarthy and music director Jonathan Nathan with crafting a musical and movement-based narrative that adds nuance and depth to the production. With a lineup of memorable show tunes and a tenacious message of rebellion and survival, Cabaret is self-aware entertainment that announces its own merits and dangers. “What good is sitting alone in your room?” Bowles sings in the show’s titular tune, “Come hear the music play! … Come taste the wine; come hear the band; come blow a horn, start celebrating; right this way, your table’s waiting!”
“My goal is that our production will manifest with artistic skill the connection of intolerance to despair,” said Fishell, adding that she hopes this rendition will be felt as “a good deed in a weary world.”
Cabaret runs Friday, May 25-Sunday, June 3, at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theater. Call 893-2064 or see theaterdance.ucsb.edu.