Fans of “Cabaret” love getting caught up in the slinky, sultry world of the Kit Kat Club in the first act of “Cabaret.” The anything-goes inventiveness of the artistic environment in Germany’s Weimar Republic was expressed everywhere from canvases in exhibitions to the cheeky live shows that made Berlin’s live performance scene famous — and infamous — and it was easy to set aside for a few hours the simmering threat of political turmoil just outside a darkened theater setting.
“All the dancing takes you on a journey in Act I,” director and choreographer Matthew Steffens told The Daily Progress. The second act, he said, brings “a little dose of reality” as characters grow increasingly aware of the rise of Nazism and the erosion of civic freedoms.
After running through Act II for the first time with the cast of Virginia Theatre Festival’s new production of “Cabaret,” which opens Friday evening in Culbreth Theatre at the University of Virginia, “I was so choked up,” Steffens said. “It’s a gorgeous show, and we can’t wait to share it with Charlottesville audiences.”
The first show of the Virginia Theatre Festival season, which can be seen through July 16, “is so prescient right now with the rise of anti-Semitism and fascism,” he said. “There’s no time more appropriate than now for Charlottesville.”
“Cabaret,” which features enduring music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, has a book by Joe Masteroff that’s based on a play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood.
“It’s easy to look at ‘Cabaret’ through the lens of what we know happened,” said Steffens, a UVa graduate who recently served as associate choreographer of the hit Broadway production and national tour of the Tony Award-nominated revival of “In the Woods” and directed a 2018 production of “A Chorus Line” for VTF.
“Cabaret” is set in 1929 to 1930 and then a bit later, in 1933 to 1934, giving audience members a chance to follow the different ways in which the characters choose to respond to changes in their world.
Act I is filled with well-known numbers — “Willkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Mein Herr” and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” — that build on each other’s emotions. “Musically, and dance-wise, it continues to stack on,” Steffens said. “Each one is a high in a rollercoaster ride.”
Act II “is thrilling and heartbreaking at the same time,” he said.
Leading the cast are Ainsley Seiger as chanteuse Sally Bowles, David Mattar Merten as the Emcee and Janet Dickinson as Fraulein Schneider. Television fans know Seiger as Detective Jet Slootmaekers in “Law & Order: Organized Crime.”
Look for Meghan Manning as Rosie, Holly Hwang as Lulu, Fola Walker as Frenchie and Holly Lauren Dayton as Texas, plus Bay Goulet as Fritzie and Fraulein Kost. Anna Aliau Guerra is Helga and Cassidy Halpin is Maria. Wendy Novicoff plays the Kit Kat Madame. Jordi Bertrán Ramírez plays Bobby, Eric Shawn is Victor, Charles Blaha is Hans, Rodolfo Santamarina is Herman and Christopher Salvaggio plays Felix.
Jeremy L. West plays Ernst Ludwig, Keith Rubin portrays Clifford Bradshaw, Roggi Chuquimarca is Customs Officer and Max and Fred Frabotta is Herr Schultz.
Broadway credits for music director Justin Ramos include “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Moulin Rouge!”, “Girl from the North Country” and “On Your Feet.” The creative team also includes Jacob Wahba as associate director, Cassidy Halpin and Christopher Salvaggio as associate choreographers, Nate Bertone as scenic designer, Joshua Warner as assistant scenic designer, Grier Coleman as costume designer, Jess Beyer as assistant costume designer, R. Lee Kennedy as lighting designer, Steven Spera as assistant lighting designer, Michael Rasbury as sound designer, Tovah Close as dialect coach and cultural consultant, Elizabeth Ray as production stage manager and Sarah Patisaul as assistant stage manager.
Dance fans will notice elements of contemporary dance in numbers that aren’t feverishly cleaving to the 1920s. Steffens said it was important to allow cast and audience members alike room to consider characters’ different decisions to stay in or escape the increasingly volatile political environment outside the Kit Kat Club’s doors through their own lenses and perspectives.
“I didn’t want to look at this as a period piece,” Steffens said, adding that he invited his cast and team “to think about what freedoms could be taken away from you that would make you think of leaving completely.”
Steffens said it’s fascinating to work with performers who haven’t seen a stage production of “Cabaret” — or the 1972 film version, which brought home a trove of Academy Awards, including trophies for director Bob Fosse, Liza Minnelli as Sally and Joel Grey as the Emcee.
Working outside the shadows of lauded portrayals gives today’s actors, dancers and creative team members freedom to shape their character development and production design in new ways.
“Coming back to this piece, there’s no wrong answer,” Steffens said. “They can make any choices they want.”
Steffens said that audience members can bring open minds of their own to embrace “Cabaret” with the same spirit.
“I would want audiences to come in with a totally blank slate, and no idea of what ‘Cabaret’ means to them,” Steffens said. “I think our ‘Cabaret’ has a totally fresh take on it.
“The sand castle that we’re building is still in development, and the final piece is the audience.”
Keep in mind that the musical contains mature content and sexual situations.
Tickets are $35 to $15. Discounts are available for students and groups of more than 20 members. Three matinee performances are available — on Sunday and again on July 15 and 16. For tickets and details, go to virginitheatrefestival.org. Call the box office at (430) 924-3376.