Drag Artist Taylor Mac Will Star as the Gender-Bending Emcee in “Cabaret” at PlayMakers Rep

New York actor, playwright, and singer/songwriter Taylor Mac will sizzle as the gender-bending Emcee of Berlin's Kit Kat Klub in the 1930s in PlayMakers Rep's production of "Cabaret" (photo by Jon Gardiner)
New York actor, playwright, and singer/songwriter Taylor Mac will sizzle as the gender-bending Emcee of Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub in the 1930s in PlayMakers Rep’s production of “Cabaret” (photo by Jon Gardiner)

PlayMakers Repertory Company will conclude its critically acclaimed 2012-13 main-stage season on April 3-7, 9-14, and 16-21 with the darker, more disturbing 1998 version of the 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret, starring New York actor, playwright, singer/songwriter, and OBIE Award®-winning drag artist Taylor Mac as the gender-bending Emcee of Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub in the early 1930s, when the Nazi Party was on the rise in Germany, and Broadway veteran Lisa Brescia as the club’s star attraction, the divinely decadent English diva Sally Bowles.

PlayMakers Rep producing artistic director Joseph Haj will stage the show in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina’s Center for Dramatic Art, with Taylor Mac and Lisa Brescia and a stellar supporting cast that includes John Dreher as young American writer and English teacher Clifford Bradshaw, Brett Bolton as his wealthy student the German businessman Ernst Ludwig, Julie Fishell as Clifford’s landlady Fräulein Schneider, Jeffrey Blair Cornell as her bashful beau the Jewish grocer Herr Schultz, Ray Dooley as Sally’s boyfriend and the Kit Kat Klub’s owner Max, Dee Dee Batteast as Texas/Chanteuse, Nathaniel Claridad as Bobby, Kelsey Didion as Fraulein Kost/Fritzie, Meredith Jones as Helga, Katie Paxton as Lulu, Maren Searle as Rosie, Josh Tobin as Victor, and Jack Utrata as Herman. The show’s ensemble includes Brandon Garegnani, Patrick McHugh, and Michaela Morton.

“I know the movie musical, but I have never worked on the play,” confesses Joe Haj. He adds, “I like the way the Kit Kat Klub stands as a metaphor for the society: A place where the party keeps going on as brightly and loudly as possible, with no concern for the gathering storm. I wanted to direct [Cabaret], because at bottom it is a deeply serious play that wrestles with enormous themes.”

With toe-tapping melodies by John Kander, irreverent lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a sizzling script by Joe Masteroff, based on 1939 short novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood and I Am A Camera, playwright John van Druten’s stage adaptation of Isherwood’s reminiscences of pre-World War II Germany, Cabaret made its Broadway debut at the Broadhurst Theatre on November 20, 1966; ran for 1,166 performances before it closed on Sept. 6, 1969; and won eight 1967 Tony® Awards (including Best Musical).

PlayMakers Rep director Joe Haj says, “All of the numbers in the Kit Kat Klub are there to amplify, distort, or satirize something that has just happened in one of the ‘book’ scenes of the play. Staging the play in such a way as to help the audience understand that the Klub is there to reflect the society outside is one of its many challenges.”

Whether set in the sleazy Kit Kat Klub or Fraulein Schneider’s shabby-but-clean rooming house in no-holds-barred Berlin in 1929 and 1930, the original 1966 version of Cabaret starkly contrasted the sexual depravity on display with the ominous rise of Adolf Hitler, whose jackbooted thugs will burst onto the scene at any minute. Free love — heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual — is rampant, but the Nazis will goosestep into the picture soon enough to spoil that party once and for all.

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s 1998 Broadway revival of Cabaret, which accents the grim political and sexual overtones of Christopher Isherwood’s ribald reminiscences, ran more than twice as long as the original production. It opened on March 19, 1998 at Studio 54 and closed on Jan 4, 2004, after 37 previews and 2,377 performances. This revival also won four 1998 Tony Awards (including Best Revival of a Musical).

PlayMakers Rep director Joe Haj says, “Cabaret begins with a train journey. A young American writer, Cliff Bradshaw (John Dreher) travels to Berlin, where he hopes to find a place to write and something to write about. Along the way, he makes a new friend, Ernst Ludwig (Brett Bolton), who introduces him to the decadent cabaret culture of Berlin and its infamous Kit Kat Club.

“At the club,” Haj says, “Cliff meets Sally Bowles (Lisa Brescia) an English cabaret performer recently down on her luck and in urgent need of new accommodations. Cliff and Sally form an unlikely relationship, based on their mutual desire for normalcy and acceptance; but personal truths emerge that ultimately shatter the illusions that supported their affair.

Broadway veteran Lisa Brescia (center) will star as the Kit Kat Klub's star attraction, the divinely decadent English diva Sally Bowles, in "Cabaret" in the Paul Green Theatre (photo by Jon Gardiner)
Broadway veteran Lisa Brescia (center) will star as the Kit Kat Klub’s star attraction, the divinely decadent English diva Sally Bowles, in “Cabaret” in the Paul Green Theatre (photo by Jon Gardiner)

Haj adds, “A subplot is the romance between the landlady Fräulein Schneider (Julie Fishell) and her elderly suitor Herr Schultz (Jeffrey Blair Cornell), a Jewish fruit seller. Unlike Sally and Cliff, Schultz and Schneider are perfect for each other; but the current political situation — Schneider would have to take a stand against the Nazis if she married Schultz — ultimately drives them apart.

“The backdrop for all the action is the sparkle and titillation of the Kit Kat Club, which provides a welcomed distraction from the political and emotional turmoil of the main characters and is a metaphor for the brilliant, decadent, and increasingly desperate state of the Weimar Republic [1919-33]. Guiding both the audience and the characters is the Kit Kat Club’s Emcee (Taylor Mac[, who won a 2010 OBIE Award for Design/Music for his play The Lily’s Revenge]). Like Dante’s Virgil, The Emcee leads us through the many layers of this story to history’s ultimate conclusion.”

In addition to director Joe Haj, the PlayMakers Repertory Company creative team for Cabaret includes assistant director Paula Morello Bennett, choreographer Casey Sams, musical director Mark Hartman, production manager Michael Rolleri, scenic designer Marion Williams, costume designer Jennifer Caprio, lighting designer Josh Epstein, sound designer/engineer Robert Dagit, vocal coaches Terry Weber and John Patrick, movement coach Craig Turner, dramaturg Adam Versenyi, stage manager Sarah Smiley , and assistant stage manager Charles K. Bayang. The Kit Kat Klub band includes music director/conductor Mark Hartman (piano/accordion), Matt Chicurel (violin/banjo), Gregg Gelb (clarinet/tenor saxophone), John Hanks (drums), Doug Largent (bass), Wayne Leechford (clarinet/alto saxophone), Mike Mole (trumpet), and Steve Wilfong (trombone).

Joe Haj says, “The set is designed to allow us to move swiftly between the world of the Klub and the other environments of the play.”

He adds, “The lighting shows the swirling party-scene of the nightclub in contrast to the harsh and challenging economic and political climate of Berlin at the end of the Weimar era, as Hitler is rising to power….

Haj says, “The costumes move spectacularly from the sexual and risqué world of the Klub to the harshness of the outside world in Berlin,” says director Joe Haj.

“Our production begins on New Year’s Eve 1932, in the twilight hours of the Weimar Republic as the Nazi rise to power is visible just above the horizon, but only to those who are willing to face it,” says Haj. “At the end of Cabaret, Cliff’s train pulls away from Berlin; and we become aware of another train, the one trailing behind the specter of World War II, carrying away the Jews, the artists, the intellectuals, the homosexuals, and all those brave enough to stand up to the Nazis, as well as those powerless to stop them. And we are left wondering what might have happened if we’d faced the truth so much sooner. What do we see today when we look squarely at the injustices and societal ills around us? Where do we avert our gaze?”

PlayMakers Repertory Company CABARET, starring Taylor Mac as The Emcee, at 7:30 p.m. April 3-5 Previews, 7:30 p.m. April 6 Opening Night, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 7, 7:30 p.m. April 9-12, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 13, 2 p.m. April 14, 7:30 p.m. April 16-19, 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 20, and 2 p.m. April 21 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $20-$40, except $50 for Opening Night Show and Post-Show Party (April 6th), $15 per general-admission ticket on Tuesday Community Nights, $10 for UNC students, and $12 for all other students. (Click here for discounts for UNC faculty/staff and active-duty military personnel and their families.

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY (7529) or http://playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-843-2311, miwashin@email.unc.edu, or http://playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.

SHOW: http://www.playmakersrep.org/cabaret.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/.

BLOG: http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: http://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://www.playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

NOTE 1: The UNC General Alumni Association will host a preshow reception with refreshments, including a conversation with Cabaret director Joseph Haj at 6 p.m. on Friday, April 5th. The price — which includes a ticket to the show — is $35 for GAA members and $50 for non-members. For details, click http://alumni.unc.edu/article.aspx?sid=9365.

NOTE 2: There will be two FREE discussions with members of the show’s creative team (designers, actors, and production personnel) after the show’s April 10th and 17th performances.

NOTE 3: There will be a special $8.50-per-student Student Matinee Performance at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, April 12th. For details, click http://www.playmakersrep.org/outreach/matinees.

NOTE 4: At 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 13th, there will be an Open-Captioned Performances. For details, click http://www.playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess/opencaption.

NOTE 5: Arts Access, Inc. (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) of Raleigh will audio-describe an All-Access Performance at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16th, which will also feature sign-language interpretation and Large-Print and Braille programs and — if requested in advance by e-mail to whitneywhite@unc.edu — a tactile tour of the set. For details, click http://www.playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess.

NOTE 6: At 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 20th, and 2 p.m. on Sunday April 21st, the N.C. Psychoanalytic Foundation (http://www.ncpsychoanalysis.org/), the Lucy Daniels Foundation ( http://ldf.org/), and the N.C. Psychoanalytic Society (http://www.ncpsasoc.org/) will sponsor FREE post-show 50-minute “Mindplay” discussions, led by , who will speak on “Conflict: A Dark Musical in a Fun Package.” For details, click http://www.ncpsasoc.org/images/Mindplay2012-13.pdf.


Goodbye to Berlin (1939 short novel): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodbye_to_Berlin”> (Wikipedia).

Christopher Isherwood (novelist): http://isherwoodfoundation.org/ (Christopher Isherwood Foundation) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Isherwood (Wikipedia).

I Am a Camera (1951 play): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Am_a_Camera (Wikipedia).

John Van Druten (playwright): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Van_Druten (Wikipedia).

Cabaret (1966 original musical): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabaret_%28musical%29 (Wikipedia) and http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=3348 (Internet Broadway Database).

John Kander (composer): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Kander (Wikipedia).

Fred Ebb (lyricist): http://www.fredebbfoundation.org/ (Fred Ebb Foundation) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Ebb (Wikipedia).

Joe Masteroff (playwright): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Masteroff (Wikipedia).

Cabaret (1972 film): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabaret_%28film%29 (Wikipedia), and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068327/ (Internet Movie Database).

Cabaret (1998 Broadway revival): http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=4848 (Wikipedia).

Joseph Haj (director) http://www.playmakersrep.org/performances/embed_artist.aspx?id=15b43fe8-a162-4c03-9218-ac7ebe7fd3a4 (PlayMakers Repertory Company bio).

Taylor Mac (actor) http://taylormac.net/ (official website) and https://www.facebook.com/taylor.mac.505 (Facebook page).

Lisa Brescia (actress): http://www.lisabrescia.com/ (official website), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisa_Brescia (Wikipedia), https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lisa-Brescia/299932653350638 (Facebook page), and http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=76170 (Internet Broadway Database).


Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Review, a FREE weekly e-mail arts newsletter. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Review.

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By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).