Joint production of ‘Cabaret’ offers original choreography, fresh take on pre-WWII Berlin

The theatre, dance and Lyric Theatre @ Illinois programs are collaborating on a joint production of “Cabaret,” in recognition of their 50-year partnership with Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Photo by Darrell Hoemann

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Students from the theatre, dance and Lyric Theatre @ Illinois programs are performing together in an unusual joint production of “Cabaret” at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, beginning Thursday.

The collaboration is a recognition of the 50-year partnership between the performing arts departments at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the center that is their collective home. The show runs Feb. 27-March 8.

“‘Cabaret’ is a very compelling story, and it was written about the same time Krannert Center was being conceived. It’s in the spirit of the ’60s,” said musical director and Lyric Theatre co-director Julie Gunn, whose first musical directing job came at age 15 for a high school production of “Cabaret.”

It is unusual for all three departments to collaborate on a piece of this scale, director and theatre professor Latrelle Bright said. The interdisciplinary experience has been a learning experience for the students and the directors, she said. It’s required flexibility to accommodate how each group works, but it’s also provided options in terms of casting.

“Cabaret” isn’t the most technically demanding musical in terms of singing and dancing, so students from each discipline are represented throughout the show’s parts. “We weren’t looking for technical perfection as much as a certain spirit and openness,” Gunn said.

Corey Barlow plays the emcee in “Cabaret.” The show looks at individualism and sexual expression in 1930s Berlin as the Nazi party is coming to power.

Photo by Darrell Hoemann

There have been multiple versions of “Cabaret” on Broadway, as well as on film. While the Krannert Center production is based on the later Broadway version, it has its own take on the story and completely original choreography by dance graduate student Elliot Reza Emadian.

The sexual content has a zany circus feel pertinent to the 1930s, rather than the hyper-sexualized quality of the 1972 film directed by Bob Fosse, Gunn said. Emadian researched the time period to be accurate in portraying dance at that time.

“Modern dance was being created at this time, both in America and Europe. These pioneering dancers were performing in cabarets, in people’s salons and in these small-scale dingy shows,” Emadian said.

“We really dove into the history of the time,” Bright said. “The costumes take on the pageantry of the cabaret. It’s almost like a drag show, a celebration like Mardi Gras.”

It also draws on the idea of a nonbinary gender spectrum.

“Questions of queerness, gender, sexuality and sensuality, and the performance of those things, are prime operating questions of the plot of ‘Cabaret,'” Emadian said.

Emadian and Bright incorporated subtle storylines into the overarching plot through the interactions of various characters.

“It’s really understated and if you blink, you might miss them. They are operating on the margins, and if you think about queerness in the 1930s, that’s the way it was operating,” Emadian said.

Connor Kamradt plays Clifford Bradshaw and Anna Benoit plays Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” The choreography of the Krannert Center production reflects a 1930s vibe as well as how questions of queerness, gender and sexuality were playing out in the cabaret.

Photo by Darrell Hoemann

The show also tries to confound the expectations of the audience, Emadian said. The sexual content was meant to be humorous and to entertain in 1930s Berlin, but the production also questions why certain subjects are depicted as punchlines. In one scene, the Kit Kat dancers perform a number talking about sex and debauchery while fully clothed in union suits.

“The time period was really kind of hypocritical. The political parties were ‘anti’ all these things but also really engaged with all these things,” Emadian said.

The arc of the music, costumes and choreography change over the course of the show to reflect extreme individualism in the beginning that is stripped away by the end. The rise of the Nazi party brings conformity. The burlesque costumes are replaced by concentration camp uniforms, and the sexy, jazzy music becomes somber.

“It’s really fun and everyone is totally wild, having a great time. Then it gets less fun, and then not fun. The party is over,” Gunn said.

“Hovering over all of this story is that we all know what happened in Germany,” she said. “But the characters in the play don’t know what happened. The war is almost a decade away. We hear what they say with great significance, but they don’t. That’s something we’ve thought about a lot.”

It’s important to understand the broader realm of Nazi sympathizers beyond the official party members, as well as those who were politically apathetic, and the Nazi propaganda and unrest bubbling up on the outskirts of their world, Bright said. The show has relevance today, and it’s easy to identify with the characters and feel connected to the material, Bright and Gunn said.

“One of the things this show does really well is look at what do you do with these forces outside of your control, and how do you survive that? Do you stay, do you leave, do you fight, do you endure?” Bright said. “We get to experience people existing in the milieu of all of that and trying to make their way as human beings.”

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