BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
When people think of Cabaret, they probably think of the 1972 movie, which made Liza Minnelli a star playing Sally Bowles, the kooky American who cuts a swath through 1930s Berlin, singing and dancing while the Nazi storm gathers around her.
But the movie, as great as it is, is far from the last word on the musical by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), with a book by Joe Masteroff, that premiered on Broadway in 1966.
"I think people remember Cabaret as this song and dance spectacular, and there's really a lot more to it than that," says Eric Davis, artistic director of Freefall Theatre, which is winding up its season with his staging of the musical. "There are several versions you can license. I saw the movie in high school and the most recent revival on tour. I looked at lots of different versions. It's very interesting how this show has changed over time, and they've continued to tweak it."
Cabaret is based on Christopher Isherwood's two autobiographical novels, The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin, published together as The Berlin Stories. The musical has two famous characters, performers at the seedy Kit Kat Klub: the Master of Ceremonies and cabaret singer Sally Bowles, "the toast of Mayfair," an Englishwoman, as she is in every version except the movie. In the Freefall production, they're played by David Mann and Emilee Dupre.
"The Emcee has changed massively over time," says Mann, a Tampa actor and director of acting studies at Blake School of the Arts. "The two iconic ones, Joel Grey and Alan Cumming, are wildly, wildly different."
Grey, the original Emcee on Broadway and in the movie, was one of the rare performers to win a Tony Award and an Academy Award for the same role. Cumming brought an openly gay, raunchy style to the 1998 revival, also winning a Tony.
"I looked at the Joel Grey version and a tape of Alan Cumming," Mann says of his preparation for the role. "People come to this thing with expectations, and I wanted to know what they are, even if I'm not going to give it to them.
"It should be an ensemble piece. A lot of these productions can become a referendum on the particular star: 'Let's go see Alan Cumming in Cabaret.' I'd like to think that what we're trying to create is: 'Let's go see Cabaret.' ''
In the Freefall staging, Cabaret is a memory play, with the Emcee looking back on the decadent brilliance of Weimar Germany. "We're beginning in 1945 when the war is over," Davis says. "We see the club and the Emcee as he remembers back to his heyday. The memory is played out against the backdrop of this burned down, bombed out cabaret."
Davis is using a script that comes from a 1987 Broadway revival, which incorporated several songs that were in the movie but not in the original stage version, including a pair of show stoppers for Sally, Mein Herr and Maybe This Time. Michael Raabe leads a five-piece band in the production.
In Goodbye to Berlin, Sally is described as untalented: "She sang badly, without any expression, her hands hanging down at her sides." Liza Minnelli and others changed that.
"The description in the Isherwood book is definitely not a feature of our production," Davis says. "We play those numbers with Sally as an incredible triple threat. She dances up a storm. She sings up a storm."
Dupre, who plays Sally, has seen and listened to recordings of various interpretations of her character. "I grew up watching the film and idolizing Liza Minnelli," she says. "The Natasha Richardson production (a revival in 1998) was life changing for me when I saw it as a young tyke."
Dupre grew up in St. Petersburg and now lives in New York, where she has a thriving theater career. She will be in the new Broadway musical Chaplin, about Charlie Chaplin, which opens in September.
She likens Sally's madcap adventures in prewar Berlin to Alice in Wonderland. "I think she just wants to be loved by everyone," she says. "I think that's the heart of her. She follows the rabbit down all sorts of holes. Like a child, she's shut off to the politics of the time and just refuses to see the impact of that."
Isherwood's Berlin Stories is an important source for Dupre, but she also finds similarities to the relationship between Sally and Cliff, Sally's gay roommate, in another book, Just Kids, Patti Smith's memoir of her friendship with gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. "It's an interesting way of looking at Sally Bowles," Dupre says. "She's a rebel, like Patti Smith."
Dupre got her start as a performer by studying dance with her mother, Cheryl Lee, well known in the Tampa Bay area as a teacher and choreographer, who is on the faculty at Shorecrest Preparatory School and the Broadway Theatre Project. She did the choreography for Freefall's Cabaret, and acknowledges she paid attention to the movie, which was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse.
"I do the Fosse take on Mein Herr," Lee says. "I wanted to have historical symbolism in the dances, and I wanted to have sexual innuendo, and I wanted to foreshadow the outcome. For example, in the kick line, I have a position that I call the swastika position, so that when the dancers are either tilting back or tilting forward with their legs, it creates a swastika."
With a cast of 13, including a half-dozen Kit Kat girls and boys, Cabaret is a dancey show, with lots of tricky choreography. So the mother-daughter communication has been helpful.
"We have the same vocabulary," Lee says. "It's really easy for us to work together, because I can say it and she knows exactly what I'm talking about."
"I can read your mind," Dupre says.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.