WASHINGTON — It won eight Tonys on Broadway in 1966, including Best Musical, before winning eight Oscars as a 1972 movie musical, including Best Actress for Liza Minnelli and Best Director for Bob Fosse, who famously upset Francis Ford Coppola for “The Godfather.”
Now, the national tour of “Cabaret” hits the Kennedy Center (July 11-Aug. 6), pulling mostly from the 2014 revival by Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) and Rob Marshall (“Chicago”).
“It will blow your head off, it’ll blow your mind, it’ll blow your soul,” actor Jon Peterson told WTOP. “As an audience member, you just get drawn in from the moment it starts and you’re sucked into this world and you don’t want it to end — and it ends. [You leave] with your jaw on the floor, questioning everything about your life. That’s what good theater is all about.”
Based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939) and John Van Druten’s play “I Am a Camera” (1951), Joe Masteroff’s adaptation is set in 1931 Berlin, where American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Benjamin Eakeley) falls for nightclub singer Sally Bowles (Leigh Ann Larkin) at the Kit Kat Klub amid the Nazi rise at the end of Weimer Germany (1919-1933).
“The Kit Kat Klub was a seedy dive in back street Berlin,” Peterson said. “There were so many of these at the time where people could go and point at the politicians, the fascists who were up and coming at the time, and laugh at them, and be sexually free on stage. … Cliff was bisexual [and] discovers himself in this journey, while Sally is trying to be a legend in her own mind.”
Filling Liza Minnelli’s shoes is Leigh Ann Larkin, who toured with Disney’s “On the Record” (2004), played June Havoc in the Broadway revival of “Gypsy” (2008), and joined Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Broadway revival of “A Little Night Music” (2009).
“She is such a knockout,” Peterson said. “Her voice is so powerful, her acting is so tender and beautiful, and she’s gorgeous, just an amazing Sally Bowles. We’re very lucky to have her.”
As for Peterson, he plays the Kit Kat Klub’s erotic Emcee, a character made famous by the incomparable Joel Grey, who won both a Tony in the role on stage and an Oscar on screen.
“I try not to consider Joel Grey too much, even though it’s a giant looming over you,” Peterson said. “I just try to be honest to who I am as the character, in my soul who I think he is. … He’s a survivor like all the Kit Kat boys and girls. He’ll do anything to survive in this terrible time, whether it’s selling drugs, selling food, stealing or prostitution. You did what you had to do.”
Not only is he a character within the story, he also serves as the narrator for the audience.
“He takes this audience through the show; he’s the emcee for us,” Peterson said. “He also represents fate, turning the pages of the story as it unravels. He represents the Nazis. He represents the people who are the victims of the Nazis, for instance the Jews. The character is endlessly complex. So whatever you come away from the show thinking he is, he is.”
This marks Peterson’s seventh time playing the role since 1999, having caught Marshall’s eye during their previous collaboration on Masteroff’s “She Loves Me” in London back in 1994.
“Our production has taken Bob Fosse’s stripping down of the elements,” Peterson said. “The costumes are black, and it’s very to-the-point and sharp. It’s a little racy with the lingerie. … It’s very sexy, sort of that classic picture of Liza Minnelli on the cabaret chair with the stockings and the hat, that whole stylized thing. Rob Marshall has totally bought into that beautifully.”
Speaking of Fosse, composers John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) wrote the “Cabaret” score a decade before penning the tunes for “Chicago” (1975). This current production combines the original Tony-winning score with additional songs from the movie soundtrack, a smart move considering it was voted the No. 5 movie musical by the American Film Institute.
“They’ve taken the original 1960s production and added some of the songs put in for the movie like ‘Money, Money’ and ‘Maybe This Time,'” Peterson said. “It’s this really witty, funny musical with this dark undertone. Some people come expecting to see ‘da-da-da’ [bubbly show tunes], which they get, but then it has this wonderful twist. … ‘If You Could See Her (Through My Eyes)’ is my favorite number. It starts off very lovely, then stabs you at the end.”
Of course, the most famous song is the title number, which asks us to, “Start by admitting from cradle to tomb, isn’t that long a stay. Life is a cabaret, old chum. It’s only a cabaret.”
“Everybody knows it as a jolly little number, so you take it at face value — life is a cabaret, life is a party, let’s just enjoy it — that’s one way of taking it,” Peterson said. “Or, life is just a party so don’t torture yourself. Don’t take it too seriously, because you’re going to be dead soon anyway. … It also tells you that life is a performance. Get out there and play the game.”
Indeed, D.C. audiences should get out and play the game at the Kennedy Center.
“It stays with you,” Peterson said. “As a piece of theater, it’s like nothing that’s ever been done. … I think in 300 years, ‘Cabaret’ will still be performed. There’s not a word superfluous. It’s just beautifully written. There’s so many quotable lines in the book of this musical. … ‘Governments come, governments go, how much longer can we wait?’ It’s a total feast.”
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