For Matthew Steffens, director and choreographer of Virginia Theatre Festival’s upcoming production of “Cabaret,” the excitement of the new season is beginning with a homecoming.
“I took a run through the [University of Virginia] Grounds this morning, and it brought back so many wonderful memories,” said Steffens, who directed “A Chorus Line” for the festival in 2018 and recently served as associate choreographer for “Into the Woods” on Broadway. “It feels like I’m back at home. I’m the son of a Navy SEAL, so I lived in 13 places before college. UVa was the first long-term home I’d had. Culbreth [Theatre] will always be my artistic home.”
Steffens has worked with Jenny Wales, artistic director of the festival, since their student days in the UVa Department of Drama. Before a kick-off event last week at Quirk Hotel Charlottesville, they shared their excitement about the new season.
“Cabaret,” which opens July 7 in UVa’s Culbreth Theatre, sweeps audience members back to the vibrant nightclub scene of Weimar Germany, at a time when authoritarian political changes were threatening its cultural diversity and anything-goes artistic climate. Tickets will go on sale June 6.
“This show becomes more and more timely as the years go on,” Wales said. The musical sparkles with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, including the well-known songs “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” The stories swirling in the musical’s Kit Kat Club focus on performers who want the show to go on, despite the looming storm of repression. Virginia Theatre Festival’s production makes it safe for audience members to feel all the emotions and reflect on the script’s sorrows, as well as its joys.
“This show is known for its wonderful tunes, but we forget about the richness,” Steffens said. “It’s such a rich show. For a while, especially post-COVID, we didn’t want to think for a little bit.”
He isn’t concerned about local audiences, however, because he knows they’re willing to think and draw their own parallels to today’s climate.
“Charlottesville audiences are the best,” Steffens said. “Nothing is better than putting on a show for a smart audience.”
Selecting just the right cast during the audition process meant considering 1,500 applicants, many of whom turned in virtual submissions. After principal auditions in Charlottesville and New York, “1,500 humans [were] whittled down to a cast of 20,” Wales said.
The final selections included Broadway veterans, local stars and fresh faces. “Wendy Novicoff made me cry at auditions,” Steffens said of a local favorite.
Wales and Steffens delight in what Steffens calls “a good shorthand” for working together seamlessly. “When you’ve known each other since you were 18, there’s so much trust in the process, and you know there are good intentions,” he said.
Ken Ludwig’s “Dear Jack, Dear Louise” will be the next show to open. Virginia Theatre Festival will present it in the intimate Helms Theatre starting July 21.
Ludwig, who is known for his complex madcap comedies, tugs heartstrings too in “Dear Jack, Dear Louise,” which he based on the World War II courtship of his U.S. Army captain father and showgirl mother. Susannah Herschkowitz and Jordan Sobel will bring the letter-powered long-distance romance to life under Jeffrey Meanza’s direction.
“It’s raucously funny, and heartwarmingly beautiful,” Wales said. “It’s such a beautiful, heartwarming piece. It’s a play for anyone who has ever been in love.”
Festival fans who savored Yolanda Rabun’s portrayal of Nina Simone in last season’s “No Fear and Blues Long Gone” can look forward to her return. “An Evening with Yolanda Rabun,” opening Aug. 3 in the Culbreth, puts the singer and her band in the spotlight for a collection of Broadway, jazz, blues and gospel standards.
“Our community really responded to her last season, and I think it’s going to be really special,” Wales said, adding that Rabun’s show will be “an evening of joy and celebration. It’s going to be extraordinary.”
Tickets will go on sale June 6 at the UVa Arts Box Office at artsboxoffice.virginia.edu. Go to virginiatheatrefestival.org for all the details.
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