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REVIEW: Come hear the music play at IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance’s 'Cabaret'

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“There was a Cabaret and there was a Master-of-Ceremonies and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany and it was the end of the world….” 

IU’s Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance Department’s much anticipated production of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” offers a truly one-of-a-kind theatrical spectacle. “Cabaret” is showing at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7-11 at the Wells-Metz Theater with a 2 p.m. matinee Nov. 11.  

The performance combines entertainment with thought-provoking elements. With a stage set in the round – a circular stage surrounded by seating that follows its contour – the audience becomes an integral part of the experience; they are in the heart of the action. 

Director/choreographer Lauren Haughton Gillis explained, “Everything is in your face, everything is immersive,” she said. “It’s based on Brechtian theater, which is breaking the fourth wall. That space is where it has to be.” 

Featuring a double cast for the lead characters Sally Bowles and Cliff Bradshaw, attending the show twice can result in a completely different experience.   

“Cabaret” sets the scene in Germany in 1931, revolving around the run-down Kit Kat Klub. The audience is guided by the charismatic IU senior musical theater major, Shane Stoltz, who embodies the role of the Emcee. The production delves into the life of struggling nightclub singer Sally Bowles, portrayed by the awe-inspiring sophomore musical theater major Abbie Grace Levi, and her tumultuous relationship with American writer Cliff Bradshaw played by Brady McGuire, also a sophomore whose portrayal exhibits a maturity beyond his years. “Cabaret” transcends the boundaries of a classic musical as a glimpse into the perils of ignorance. As the Nazi Party gains relevance, the audience witnesses the direct effects on the characters in seedy Berlin.  

At the core of it all, Haughton Gillis’s words resonate. 

“The message of the show is so important; we needed to do this show, and everyone kept that in mind,” Haughton Gillis said. 

“Cabaret” serves as a reminder of the atrocities of the Holocaust and the repercussions of subtle prejudice. It is a musical allowing us to contemplate histories’ dark events and underscoring the importance of advocating for one’s convictions. Haughton Gillis’s direction is marked by sincerity and compassion, serving as a testament to the value of theatrical education. 

This production immediately sets a slinky, sultry tone as the cast welcomes you to the show, interacting with echoes of “Willkommen” in the pre-show. It feels as though you have been transported into a nightclub with haunting 1930s tunes playing while you observe tables set with used ashtrays and dial-up phones. The Kit Kat Klub sign shines dimly, almost as a metaphor for fading glory. This is a rundown club, but it somehow feels glamorous and timeless. The set appears lived-in, giving the audience the sense that these characters exist beyond the confines of the 2-hour run.  

The show kicks off with the Emcee (Stoltz), energetically prancing around the stage surrounded by his ensemble of Kit Kat boys and girls, cheekily inviting the audience to the show.  

For Stoltz, this role carries a personal significance. 

“Given a general rise in prejudice, it is a story that is relevant right now, and as a Jewish person, I’ve been hearing about it my whole life,” Stoltz said.  

Stoltz’s performance is far from a caricature. Instead, it offers an honest, nuanced portrayal of an entertainer navigating a world amid tumultuous change and increasing hatred.  

Levi and McGuire display remarkable chemistry. Levi oozes charisma, making it evident she was destined for this role. Bowles remains oblivious to the world around her, yet we can’t help but feel sympathy for her. McGuire truly shines in the more intense scenes, coming to terms with the sudden shock of Berlin’s Nazi culture. It is a shame Cliff has fewer opportunities to sing, as when he does, McGuire’s voice is absolutely beautiful.  

In numbers like “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Mein Herr,” Levi shines particularly with the addition of the ensemble. Each member embodies a distinct and intentional personality. Standout performances include junior musical theatre major Alanna Porter’s gritty, yet captivating, portrayal of Helga and Laura Rong’s oh-so-endearing depiction of Rosie, who maintains a permanent smile. Although their dancing is top notch, we get the sense there is more to the ensemble than just glitz and glamour.  

 “[These characters] are performing to live. It's a grind, it's a hustle, we don’t just exist to be on stage,” Stoltz said. 

The supporting actors prove to be just as strong as the leads. Senior musical theatre major Alexa Norbeck’s portrayal of sex worker, Fraulein Kost, is passionate and intense, with tears visibly on the verge during Nazi anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me (Reprise).”  Senior musical theater majors Jake Kline and Gracie Harrison portray the lovable Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. These are voices that demand to be heard. Harrison’s compelling alto tone steals the show with her rendition of “What Would You Do,” while Kline’s portrayal of the Jewish fruit seller breaks your heart, embodying a sincere spirit that leaves you begging for one more verse in “It Couldn’t Please Me More.” 

The cast’s unity is undeniable, and their dedication is unwavering, as Haughton Gillis attests.  

“Everyone brought their full creative selves, and I felt really lucky that people were so passionate about it,” she said.  

This commitment shines through in every aspect of the production, from the energetic performances to the collaborative lighting cues with the drummer. It would be a mistake to not acknowledge senior musical theater majors Molly Munn and Jacob Jackson, who take on the double cast roles of Cliff and Sally, which I unfortunately did not get to witness.  

“What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play,” at the Wells-Metz Theater! In an ever-changing world, “Cabaret” remains a timeless piece of theater, layered with captivating performances that transport you to a different era. Get your tickets now for a “perfectly marvelous” theatrical experience.

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