‘Willkommen’ to RTC’s ‘Cabaret’

 ‘Willkommen’ to RTC’s ‘Cabaret’

By Dan Guarino

There is a revealing line in the first Act of “Cabaret,” the Rockaway Theatre Company’s newest production opening Friday, March 17 and running through Sunday, April 2, at RTC’s Post Theater in Fort Tilden.

“Welcome to Berlin,” is spoken with a kind smile to the newly arrived American writer Clifford Bradshaw in the daylight of 1930’s pre-Nazi Germany. But then it is repeated by unseen overlapping voices, in haunting whispers that fade away into the darkest corners at the stage’s edge.

Directors/choreographers Gabri­elle Mangano and Nicola De Pier­ro-Nellen are going beyond brin­ging this well-known musical to the stage. They’re raising it to the level of a full-blown theatrical experience, inviting the whole audience to take a seat and breathe in the air of the bawdy Kit Kat Club where it is mostly set.

Mangano said, “Cabaret” is “based on a true reflection of Christopher Isherwood’s memoirs, ‘Goodbye to Berlin.’ It’s an account of his travels in Germany during the 1930s. The people he met, his experiences, they are all seen in the characters of ‘Cabaret.’ Isherwood becomes Cliff, a writer exploring a new place, who meets Sally Bowles (in real life Jean Ross)- a British, fleeting, flighty ingenue who doesn’t sit still for too long, performing in a seedy dive bar.”

But as the world unravels around them, each character must find their way to deal, or not, with what is to come. “Everything comes to light when something can no longer be ignored,” Mangano said. As the plot is interpreted with song and dance, she notes, the beguiling emcee “is the thread that leads the audience on the path from the burlesque to the grotesque.”

Isherwood’s tales would become a novella, a stage play and later film, “I Am A Camera,” and later a musical, “Cabaret,” on stage and screen. Those more familiar with the Joel Grey/ Liza Minelli film version, will find this an excitingly different show based on newer revival versions built on the original musical’s roots.

 Director Bob Fosse “owned it with Liza in the film, but Alan Cumming (as the Emcee) claimed it in the 1990’s revival. Although there are differences, the intentions are the same,” Mangano notes. “When (stage director) Sam Mendes stripped it down, I feel like it took the show to a new level, something that transcended generations, something we can connect to now even in 2023.”

After seeing a revival production at Studio 54 in 2002, De Pierro-Nellen recalls, “To say the experience changed me is an understatement. To see that revival, with that cast, in that setting, stuck with me for years. We are emulating the revival but there are scenes and numbers that are nods to the original. I like to think we a have a nice mix of all versions.”

Opening in London, the Cummings led version, which RTC’s production is based on, later moved to Broadway and became its longest running revival.

Rehearsals at RTC, where actors bring their skill and intensity to every session, have been ongoing since January. Musical director Jeffrey Arzberg has worked hard at not only getting the cast vocals pitch perfect, but also getting the sound of “Cabaret” just right, which he describes as “a kind of ‘30s German jazz”. Arzberg will lead the show’s live band. 

Even with favorites like “Willkommen,” “Cabaret,” “Two Ladies,” and “Money,” Mangano says, “I think the less expected numbers will be the standouts in our production.” Along with songs like “So What?” “Married,” “Mein Herr,” and “It Couldn’t Please Me More (The Pineapple Song),” De Pierro-Nellen says, “When the cast does ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ at the end of Act 1, it will be an amazing moment.”

Indeed, both have very high praise for all their performers. “The talent level that you will see in front of you during this production will blow you away,” says De Pierro-Nellen.

Mangano adds, “I can’t sing enough praises for this cast. I call them ‘dreamy,’ because I feel half-awake seeing it all come together. I’m loving every minute of it.” The cast numbers 16 in total, with many doing double duty with costumes, lighting and stage managing. Three have never been on stage at RTC before, but it’s “as if they have been here for years,” Mangano said.

 “We have some familiar faces and some newbies, and the new members of our company have become part of our family now,” De Pierro-Nellen said.

Both directors have been involved in every aspect of RTC production since their teens. Mangano explains, “Nicola and I have worked together and been friends for 20-plus years. She said, ‘I know what we have to go for, and it’s ‘Cabaret.’ We knew that we would do everything as a team, as co-directors and co-choreographers. We started planning it in November, but really, it’s something we’ve always talked about through the years of loving the show.”

“So far it’s been an amazing journey with her, and I am realizing a decade’s long dream,” De Pierro-Nellen said.

They both say the musical will strike a chord with audiences today.

“The heaviest, and unfortunately still relevant, theme we see in the show is anti-Semitism, obviously as it is the main issue at the time with the Nazis coming to power in 1930’s Berlin,” Mangano notes. “However, there are underlying themes of place and home, of sexuality, gender, being a ‘misfit’ in society. The character of the Emcee brings these matters to the forefront in a multitude of ways, by normalizing them, confronting you with them, making you question them.”

“Cabaret” will entertain with its dancing and singing but provoke thought with its drama. Tickets are now available at www.rockawaytheatrecompany.org.

As Mangano says, “Come hear the music play!”

And, De Pierro-Nellen adds, “Welcome to Berlin.”

Photos by Dan Guarino.

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