Curtain up on Milwaukee Rep’s ‘Cabaret’

Willkommen to Berlin, 1931. Bienvenue to life amidst economic adversity and political turmoil. Welcome to “Cabaret.”

Kelley Faulker, who plays Sally Bowles, rehearses a scene from ”Cabaret.” Photo courtesy Michael Brosilow

The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s first show of the season, and the first full-scale musical to be performed on the Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse stage, “Cabaret” brings the Kit Kat Club to Milwaukee from Sept. 17 to Oct. 24.

Set during the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany, “Cabaret” focuses on the Kit Kat Club, a nightclub in Berlin where patrons try to forget the changing world around them. The plot revolves around 19-year-old cabaret performer Sally Bowles and her relationship with young American writer Cliff Bradshaw.

When “Cabaret” debuted on Broadway in 1966, it earned rave reviews and won that year’s Tony Awards for best score and best musical. In 1972, it was adapted into a film starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York and Joel Grey.

Mark Clements, the Rep’s new artistic director, is pulling double duty for his first production, serving as its director as well. He said it was his goal to challenge the audience to question things they normally see in black and white.

“I think we [society] see things happening all around us and automatically assume we are unaffected,” Clements said. “If we take our eye off the ball and let these things happen, and we never contest them, we could be in danger. …If we don’t question things, what happens?”

Clements said he never thinks of directing a show as fun — he finds it “bloody hard.”

“The more you do, the more you know, and the more you want out of it,” Clements said.

Like many older shows, “Cabaret” has been revived on Broadway multiple times, resulting in three distinct adaptations of the show. The first revival, in 1987, was a more polished version of the original with mostly the same songs and content, but the second, in 1998, added an edgy sexual dimension to the play and incorporated some of the movie’s songs.

Clements said he chose the 1987 revival of the show because he felt it told the story better, whereas the other versions have been “hijacked with style and with the sexual element.”

He said the interesting thing about “Cabaret” is its subtle way of moving the audience to challenge the world they live in.

For this production, the Rep is reaching out to the Milwaukee Ballet for a collaborative effort, taking on its artistic director, Michael Pink, to serve as the musical’s choreographer.

Pink said his inspiration was in keeping the piece rooted in 1930s movements to lock the musical in its time period.

Pink said the production works to be both promiscuous and fabulously grungy. He said the musical numbers differ significantly in their content and style, making it a lavish and dynamic piece of theatre.

Pink said another phenomenal attribute of the Rep’s production is the young talent of the cast — and not just their acting. In the Rep’s production of “Cabaret,” Pink said, if you don’t see the cast onstage singing, dancing or acting, you’ll find them up on the band stage playing an instrument.

He believes this synthesis of skills is a part of what makes the musical work and allows the piece to still connect with audiences today.

“It’s a combined piece of theatre, and I think that’s what it should be,” Pink said. “Everyone has a distinct and important role, and I like that about the way it looks — everyone fits well into their roles.”

“Cabaret” opens tomorrow and runs through Oct. 24 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets can be purchased at 414-224-9490 or online at www.milwaukeerep.com.