As a choreographer and director, Josh Rhodes has spent at least part of the past 15 years helping to reinvent or rediscover older musicals for Sarasota audiences at the Asolo Repertory Theater.
But every time production art director Michael Donald Edwards mentioned John Kander-Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff’s 1966 musical “Cabaret,” Rhodes backed off.
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“I think it’s a perfect show that had perfect productions,” he said. “Everyone was seeing ‘Cabaret’ so beautifully done on Broadway and on tour, why do we have to bring them another one?”
But last winter, when Edwards brought it up again as a possibility for the 2022-23 season, Rhodes was more on board with directing the musical, which is set in Berlin in 1929 and 1930 at dawn. of the rise of the Nazi Party.
“I suddenly felt like it was even more of a time than usual to discuss ‘Cabaret’ and discuss this history, our human history of something as disgusting as the rise of the Nazi Party,” he said. he declared. “There is more anti-Semitism now. There is a growing rise of fascism. The only thing we can do as artists is to start by just telling these stories to the public and reminding people of our history, our human nature, and how easy it is to behave in this way and wonder where are we in the current world where we live. What am I doing to fight anti-Semitism and people who use others as scapegoats? »
The musical tackles current issues
Rhodes and two cast members spoke about the show the same week the entertainer formerly known as Kanye West was fired from numerous companies after posting anti-Semitic remarks online. And evidence of Jewish hatred has become more evident across the country.
“Cabaret,” based on Christopher Isherwood’s memoir “I Am a Camera,” is set at Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub, where a mischievous master of ceremonies oversees a provocative, sometimes saucy production featuring a diverse assortment of singers, dancers, and musicians. , including headliner Sally Bowles. Harold Prince directed the original Broadway production with Joel Gray as emcee, and Sam Mendes directed an acclaimed revival starring Alan Cumming.
At Asolo Rep, Rhodes works with Lincoln Clauss as emcee, Iris Beaumier as Sally, Alan Chandler as Clifford Bradshaw—Isherwood’s version of the show—and a cast of mostly Sarasota newcomers. His team also includes musical direction by Angela Steiner, costumes by Alejo Vietti and scenography by Tijana Bjelalac.
The musical is mostly set at the club, as well as the boarding house where Cliff lives (with Sally a frequent visitor), run by Kelly Lester like Fraulein Schneider.
The songs – including “Two Ladies”, “So What?” “Maybe this time”, “If you could see her” and the title number – comment on what is happening in the social and political world outside the cozy club.
Rhodes said he was focusing on a period in Berlin when there was “a burst of beauty and the art was flourishing. They were almost about to vote for gay rights. Berlin had the potential to be a new democracy. There was a moment when you could have had some hope for the values we have and you thought Berlin might have had a different outcome.
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Clauss said he found his way into his character and tried to avoid getting caught up in what Gray, Cumming or others had done with the role.
“The catch with the emcee as an actor is that people see him as this ordinary, ubiquitous being, almost as a metaphor for what’s going on in Germany. It’s not really playable,” he said. Clauss sees him more as an artistic leader, “the orchestrator, the puppeteer, who wants to put on a really good show no matter what. That’s my emcee’s goal.
According to Rhodes, the club is full of talented artists and Beaumier thinks Sally “hopes to be the biggest star. She hopes to make her mark in the world as another black icon after Josephine Baker.
Beaumier said his mother watched the movie “Cabaret” (starring Oscar-winning actress Liza Minnelli as Sally) many times when she was a child. “I loved the songs in the movie, but I didn’t really know the musical or what it all meant until high school and then college, when I dug a little deeper to find out what it was all about. acted.”
As a black performer, Beaumier never saw herself in the role as Sally is traditionally played by white actresses. “I was able to read the script for the first time as if Sally Bowles was a black woman in Germany. I am the daughter of immigrants. Her mother’s family is from Ghana and Togo and her father was born and raised grew up in France.
“Baker went to Berlin and they loved her, and she went to France and they loved her even more. It’s my duty to honor her hopes and dreams as the next star,” Beaumier said.
The show is all new to Clauss, who admits to not being fully aware of the songs and their varying meanings.
“I’m one of those people who heard ‘Cabaret’ and thought it was a jovial number,” he said. “I didn’t realize ‘Maybe This Time’ is about an abortion. I was coming in completely blind. I didn’t see the movie.”
Rhodes said he had the opposite problem. “That’s what scared me. I knew it too well.
Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Joe Masteroff. Directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes. From Nov. 16 to Dec. 12 31 Asolo Repertory Theater, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets start at $35. 941-351-8000; asolorep.org