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Asolo Rep Director Josh Rhodes brings new take to 'Cabaret'

It's a Broadway staple that has been done and done again, revived and reimagined. And now "Cabaret" is coming to the Asolo Repertory Theatre for a six-week run this winter.


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  • | 10:00 a.m. November 9, 2022
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In the twilight of the Jazz age, author Christopher Isherwood was down and out in Berlin. His “Goodbye to Berlin” told the fictional story of those hard times. In 1966, playwright Joe Masteroff, composer John Kander, and lyricist Fred Ebb distilled a great story from Isherwood’s prose and John Van Druten’s stage adaptation.

A hit Broadway musical called “Cabaret” was the result. Thanks to the musical’s perennial revivals (and Bob Fosse’s 1973 film adaptation) many theatergoers (and critics) know the story by heart.

The musical’s tale of a struggling writer, a burlesque bimbo, a seedy nightclub, and its decadent performers and patrons is as familiar as “A Christmas Carol.”

We’ve seen it all before. Or have we?

Josh Rhodes, the director and choreographer of the Asolo Rep’s upcoming production of “Cabaret,” has a different take.

In his reimagined version, the Kit Kat Klub’s performers are artists, not decadent losers.

His Sally Bowles is no bimbo — she’s an emerging star along the lines of Josephine Baker.

His Emcee isn’t a cynical showman on the fringes of society; he’s an artistic director who’s created an alternative society for non-conforming artists he cares about. I’ve never seen that before — and I can’t wait to see it.

Based on our following conversation, you’ll probably feel the same way. 

 

"Cabaret" Director Josh Rhodes sat down for a Q&A with the Observer. (Courtesy photo)
You have a knack for finding a fresh directorial approach to familiar material. What’s your take on “Cabaret”?

Interesting question. That’s actually what made me afraid of tackling “Cabaret.”

What approach could I possibly use that hasn’t been already done? Do I even need to have a “take”…?

But I suppose my take is to highlight the incredible entertainment of the Kit Kat Klub.

It’s a beautiful world. And that beauty lures you into the show. “Cabaret” starts off with “Welcome” — and then it grabs you with dazzling production numbers and some of the most amazing songs ever written.

You're captured by the story before you know it.

You fall in love with the performers. You fall in love with the family. You even fall in love with the space.

 

Why do we love the cabaret performers?

Because they’re a group of creative artists. And the Kit Kat Klub is the world they’ve created for themselves.

There’s beauty and detail in what they’ve made; down to the costumes, the scenery, and the props.

You realize this beautiful palace was shiny and new at one time.

Now, the floors might be sticky with liquor and beer. Underneath the floorboards, it might be even more disgusting.

But artists created this space with beauty, skill and craft. When the Emcee says, 'In here, life is beautiful,' he’s really saying, 'As artists, we try to make beautiful things. Welcome to our beautiful world!'

 

Ah! That really is a fresh take on “Cabaret.”
The film and most stage productions scold the cabaret artists. They’re saying: "Look at these decadent people in this corrupt world." But you’re saying: "Look at these artists and the beautiful world they’ve created."

Yes. And these artists trying to hold onto that world — and they're also trying to comment on the world beyond the Kit Kat Klub. We think of the Emcee as the artistic director of this show.

The musical numbers he’s created are beautifully in tune with the outside world and its imminent downfall.

In a crafty way, through humor and subtext, he’s trying to tell the audience what's happening in Berlin and Germany.

He’s trying to get a message across.

 

So, the Emcee came off as a creep in the Bob Fosse movie. In your version, he’s a savvy artist making sly social commentary. He’s no creep.

No, he isn’t. And I think that there were many artists like him during this time.

Berlin was in its creative heyday in 1931. Cabaret artists were just a part of the scene.

There were writers, painters, fashion designers, filmmakers. … Artists of every kind flocked to Berlin to launch their careers and make a name for themselves.

People also came to Berlin to see what these talented artists were doing. It often went to the artists’ heads.

 

They were good, and they knew it?

Absolutely. They were proud — and a little cocky — about their art form. The Emcee definitely is.

 

Not a humble individual.

Not remotely.

 

“Cabaret,” the musical, is set in 1931. It’s the beginning of the Great Depression, which hit the Weimar Republic very hard.

That’s absolutely true.

 

I’m surprised the Kit Kat Klub is still in business.

It’s really not so surprising. When life is grim, people need to get away.

 

But isn’t that … escapist?

I think it’s human nature. When faced with a threat, people want to escape. And they also want to be together.

I remember my own traumatic life experience during the World Trade Center disaster. Acting on some basic instinct, New Yorkers all gravitated to the pubs. And we all just sat there watching each other drink.

We all needed to be together and we all needed alcohol.

I also read that sales of cosmetics, makeup and nail polish went through the roof after 9-11. So when the outside world becomes depressing, we need to put a shiny coat of paint on our lives. The Kit Kat Klub fills that need.

 

It’s a shiny shelter from the gathering storm…

Yes, but it’s only a temporary shelter.

This musical begins by showing you the Kit Kat Klub’s glittering veneer. In the end, you see it slowly crack.

That’s when you realize it’s unstable. You realize it won’t hold up. And it won’t protect the artists inside forever.

When the storm finally comes in full force, the shelter will fall.

 

OK. So, the Kit Kat Club is a microcosm — and it stands for the macrocosm of Berlin and the rest of Germany.

I agree. And that’s what I said to the cast.

"We can't play to the macro story. The writers have given us a brilliant, small story that’s set in a boarding house and a cabaret. As actors, it’s your job to play that out. It’s my job as a director to provide the big story at the end."

 

How would you define that story?

I’d say … the national madness of Nazi Germany is going to turn the world of the Kit Kat Klub upside down.

A handful of people in the musical will endure that trauma. 

And many won’t survive. And millions of others will share that experience.

 

I’ve seen a rendering of the set on the Asolo Rep website. It’s beautiful, if slightly claustrophobic. Was that deliberate?

Absolutely.

Tijana Bjelajac is our amazingly talented scenic designer. I purposely asked her to take that approach.

 

Why?

Because I know myself.

I knew if I gave myself a full stage, the dance numbers would be huge.

I was like, 'Please box me in.'

That’s exactly what Tijana did. And I love it. She was so inspired by the color and geometry of Art Deco design. And the  cabaret set she created is beautiful. And hollow. You can see through it, almost like an X-ray.

Along with her outstanding design work, Tijana is also a brilliant artist and a great painter. So I asked her to create a mural on the back wall. She came up with the gigantic face of a woman.

She might be singing. Or laughing? Or crying?

We really don’t know. Her emotion is ambiguous, and I love that. It’s really perfect for this show.

 

Not to get too apocalyptic, but do you see any parallels between the doomed Weimar Republic of this musical and the world we live in today?

Oh, absolutely. You wouldn’t think a musical from 1966 would have contemporary relevance.

But Fascism and Anti-Semitism are outrageously on the rise around the globe.

I’m sure the creators of “Cabaret” would be horrified.

They must’ve assumed that nightmare was all in the past.

 

What do you hope Asolo Rep audiences will take away from this production of “Cabaret”?

I hope they’ll be swept away by the beautiful life inside the Kit Kat Klub … and reflect on the darkness that finally overwhelmed it. I also hope they’ll recognize we've lived through this madness before — and we can’t ignore the danger of living through it again.