Bay Area theater offers stark warning about 2024 with staging of classic musical (2024)

Walnut Creek may not seem like the obvious place to find a bold and provocative artistic statement about the current state of America and what’s at stake in the 2024 presidential election.

It also may be surprising that a 58-year-old Broadway musical, about events taking place nearly a century ago, could speak to today’s national fears about authoritarianism, antisemitism and crackdowns on women’s rights and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

But that’s what audiences will find in a new production of “Cabaret” at Center Repertory Company, the resident theater company at the Lesher Center for the Arts in suburban Walnut Creek.

Certainly, “Cabaret” is one of the most beloved and entertaining musicals in Broadway history, as the company’s newly installed artistic director Matt M. Morrow said in an interview. People may best remember the 1972 film adaptation, featuring iconic, Oscar-winning performances by Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, along with Bob Fosse’s signature direction and choreography.

Bay Area theater offers stark warning about 2024 with staging of classic musical (1)

But, at its heart, “Cabaret” deals with “darker” themes, Morrow said. With its setting in another time and place — late 1920s Berlin — the show also operates at a more universal level to offer its stark warning about history’s tendency to repeat itself, Morrow explained.

“I think Cabaret has always sort of been a Trojan horse of sorts,” Morrow continued. “You know, it’s packaged as a musical with great numbers in it, but the subject matter at its core is really intense. You know, it’s very much asking, ‘How did we let the Holocaust happen?’”

“Cabaret,” with music by Broadway legends John Kander and Fred Ebb, follows the romantic misadventures of characters who gravitate around the hedonistic Kit Kat Klub. During Germany’s Weimar Republic, artists, thinkers and people from historically marginalized communities enjoyed a brief period of exhilarating freedom, even amid stark political extremism, economic turmoil and the ominous rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party.

Like many notable productions of the musical since its 1966 Broadway debut, Center Rep’s “Cabaret” delivers catchy, clever songs and dazzling dance numbers — “Willkommen,” “Mein Herr” and the title song, “Cabaret.” But Center Rep’s “Cabaret” also doesn’t “hold anything back,” Morrow said.

Under the direction of Markus Potter, a Concord-reared theater veteran who was raised by a civil rights activist, the show deals forthrightly with a range of topics: abortion, antisemitism and positive messaging about same-sex relationships and expressions of queer identity. The production, for example, dresses the club’s Emcee and his crew of male and female performers in corsets, garters, suit vests, fishnets and leather — teasing, risqué accoutrements that play with modes of androgyny, femininity and sexual experimentation.

Meanwhile, protagonist Cliff Bradshaw, a struggling American novelist, has affairs with both men and with Sally Bowles, the club’s chanteuse. She also unapologetically pursues her career and sexual opportunities. When she later discovers she’s pregnant, she exercises her choice to get an abortion, then offers a defiant rendition of “Cabaret” after undergoing a procedure that probably wasn’t safe or hygienic. Most tragically, a Jewish character tries to make sense of an enveloping political movement that doesn’t regard him as properly German.

Above all, “Cabaret” offers a warning about apathy in the face of growing authoritarianism, both Morrow and Potter said in interviews. The play strongly suggests that its gay and Jewish characters are doomed to perish in concentration camps after Hitler comes to power.

This warning may come most starkly in that Trojan Horse way, with a rousing kick-line dance number at the beginning of Act II. The number is led by the Emcee, the metaphorical character who lures audiences into the Kit Kat Klub’s bewitching debauchery while alerting them to the looming catastrophe. When the darkly patriotic anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” begins to play, the dancers’ kicks pick up a martial tempo, and they end the number goose-stepping and offering “Heil Hitler” salutes.

Morrow, formerly the executive artistic director of San Diego’s LGBTQ+ Diversionary Theatre, noted that that “Cabaret” is “in the ether right now.” The latest Broadway revival, transplanted from a 2022 West End production, opened in April and has scored nine Tony nominations, including for Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, who plays the Emcee. “It’s resonating anew, especially with this election cycle,” Morrow said.

The expected face-off between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in November has been described by political pundits as a battle for “the soul of America” and “a test case for American democracy.” Neither Morrow nor Potter mentioned Trump by name in interviews. But Potter, who served as the company’s interim artistic director from 2021 to 2023, said he was thinking of current events when he considered including “Cabaret” in Center Rep’s 2023-24 season.

Bay Area theater offers stark warning about 2024 with staging of classic musical (2)

Coming out of the “trauma” of the COVID-19 pandemic, Potter said, “We were still in the throes of grappling with, who are we as a society, where are we going?” Potter, an assistant professor of performance at the University of Kansas, expressed alarm at the “attacks on LGBTQ+ communities” in the United States. Closer to Walnut Creek, he was horrified by antisemitic tirades taking place at City Council meetings. “It was this stark reminder that we’re not insulated from this absurdity and misinformation,” Potter said.

Morrow and Potter understand that people may be surprised that Walnut Creek would welcome a provocative work like “Cabaret,” given its image as a pleasant upscale suburb. But they note that Walnut Creek is home to an increasingly young, diverse population with urban sensibilities. The city also is the regular site of vibrant political protests, notably the Women’s Marches following Trump’s election. Moreover, its government has a long history of devoting significant funding to supporting arts in the community, including its professional theater company. A city blueprint for keeping the Lesher Center viable in the coming decades puts an emphasis on producing “bold, surprising, high-quality art.”

To Potter, “Cabaret” offers this “beautiful call to get involved and use your voice and stand up for the type of communities that we cherish and that we believe in.” At one point, a politically awakened Cliff — after reading Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” – tells Sally to “Wake up! The party’s over.”

“This is why ‘Cabaret’ has lasted, and perhaps is one of the greatest musicals of all time, because it speaks to that need to reject apathy and to avoid being complicit,” Potter said. “It makes us ask what we value, and make hopefully makes us want to fight for what we value. And those themes are so beautiful in a story that continues to haunt us.”

Center Repertory Company’s “Cabaret” continues through June 23 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek,

Bay Area theater offers stark warning about 2024 with staging of classic musical (2024)
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