The music sounds so celebratory and jazzy and carefree from a decadent time — one with frightening storm clouds on the horizon.
Janie Gordon easily understands that about the classic musical “Cabaret” — the show kicking off the local Mill Race Theatre Company’s 50th anniversary season Friday and Saturday at The Commons. She first got to know the show that offers a foreboding look at the Nazi’s rise to power when she landed a role in a Bloomington production in 1980.
She penned a look back as part of the program notes for the weekend musical.
“Little did I know that this story would change me,” she wrote. “Each night, I became completely overwhelmed by the suffering and pain that surrounded the Jews during this turbulent time in Germany. No matter how many times I have seen this musical, it still moves me in a way that is life changing.
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“It is interesting and sad how the social and political issues of the 1930s (still) linger with us today.”
For those who figure they can simply revel in the show’s music as an escape, that might prove a slight challenge. It’s especially true since the troupe’s presentation is meant to be a reminder that, in today’s world, anti-Semitism is back in the news, and ethnic, racial and political tensions have risen considerably.
So, yes, come to the cabaret, old chums. But be prepared for a behind-the-scenes message as serious as today’s sociological divides, cast members say.
“There’s a reason this show keeps coming back (in major productions),” said John Johnson, playing the lead role as the emcee of Berlin’s Kit Kat Club. “It’s about people who have let morality become permeable. And within that permeability, other powers start to rise — and I mean more than those in a feel-good time of the Roaring Twenties.”
Early on, Johnson’s character, made famous on Broadway and in the 1972 movie by Joel Grey, tells the audience, “Leave your troubles outside. … We have no troubles here.”
Gordon and the troupe’s other leaders love the idea of doing the performance at The Commons, marking the ensemble’s first such show in a venue that opened in 2011. The idea is that tables will be arranged as they might have been at the German venue nearly a century ago. To make the atmosphere more realistic, Mill Race is adding a kind of runway to the stage.
“We definitely want it to have that club feel,” said Gordon, a longtime singer and actress making her directorial debut.
She acknowledged that her first time calling the shots “is a little intimidating.” But she also praised a seasoned cast that includes some of the city’s most polished vocalists, some of whom have worked professionally. Plus, one of the four Kit Kat Girls, Tiffany Sparks, has toured extensively an an actress and dancer in shows worldwide.
“When you have this many talented people together? C’mon, there’s no way to hold us back,” Gordon said. “We’re going to put on a show — a real, full-scale musical.”
She emphasized that because, originally, the company originally was going to present only a concert version of the musical. But the idea expanded, just like many of the cast members’ talents over the years with the troupe.
Allison Kunkler, who said she initially was reserved before becoming involved with Mill Race as a youngster, acknowledged that the real-life character renamed Sally Bowles is more than a challenge for her.
“Sally’s a very difficult character to portray,” Kunkler said. “She has a vulnerability that I rarely show in public.”
But the club entertainer in the story also boasts considerable pipes — never a problem for Kunkler, who has crooned onstage and even as a singing bartender locally a few years ago.
Johnson considered the fact that “cabaret” is indeed great showbiz-style entertainment — but so much more.
“I think all artists sometimes think you can do something that’s purely entertainment,” Johnson said. “And there is a place for that. But even those kinds of shows we occasionally think of as pure fluff often go a little deeper — if you want to look.”
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What: Mill Race Theatre Company’s kickoff of its 50th anniversary season with the presentation of the musical "Cabaret." Set in late-1920s Berlin, Germany, as the Nazis are rising to power, it focuses on the nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, and revolves around American writer Cliff Bradshaw and his relationship with English cabaret performer Sally Bowles.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: The Commons, 300 Washington St., in downtown Columbus.
Principal cast: Emcee — John Johnson; Sally Bowles — Allison Kunkler; Cliff Bradshaw — Benjamin Seiwert; Ernst Ludwig — Caleb Blackerby; Fraulein Schneider — Camilla Gehring; Herr Schultz — Jeff Bray; Fraulein Kost — Emily Nolting; Max/Customs Officer — Horace Tucker. Janie Gordon is director and music director.
Tickets: $20 and $25, available at millracetheatre.org and at the door.