‘Cabaret’ Swings Eastern Theatregoers back to Nazi Germany

Written by Michael Rouleau

The first theatrical production of the fall 2018 semester at Eastern Connecticut State University was “Cabaret,” the Tony Award-winning musical set on the eve of Nazi-controlled Germany. With six performances between Oct. 18 and 28, theatregoers were dazzled by a stage set in the seedy Kit Kat Klub in early-1930s Germany, a time rife with political tensions that ultimately brought Adolf Hitler to power.

The Kit Kat Klub is a promiscuous nightclub whose patrons seem happily oblivious to the shifting culture and crumbling society outside. Cliff Bradshaw (Harold Gagne ’20) is an American writer seeking inspiration. He finds his way into the ‘klub’ and becomes enamored with one of the dancers, Sally Bowles (Zoe Czerenda ’19). Cliff is quick to notice the rising Nazi movement, but Sally and her Kit Kat patrons would rather not think about politics.

Eastern’s rendition of “Cabaret” was directed by Eastern alumna and adjunct faculty member Nichola Johnson ’05. In her director’s notes, Johnson describes 1932 Berlin as a city in chaos, with economic hardships that severely stratified the country since the end of World War I.

“With German citizens hungry, out of work and hopelessly dreaming of a better future, a rising extremist movement calls for hatred of the ‘other,’ the ‘other’ including Jews, African immigrants and gay people,” writes Johnson. “The rising populace is schooled to believe in a gloriously revived Germany, a Germany that returns to the purity of its roots.”

Further describing the cultural context of early-1930s Germany, Johnson mentions the rising condemnation of artists and intellectuals, misogyny and ethnic intolerance. “It is deeply disturbing,” she writes, “that almost a century later, we are locked in the same struggles for acceptance and human rights, newly made acute by waves of populism taking hold all over the world.”

“I’m grateful to have had the honor to participate in such a culturally relevant show,” said Edward Lorsin ’21, who played Max, the owner of the Kit Kat Klub. “The themes within this decades-old musical highlight societal struggles that people continue to deal with today.”

Showcased in the Proscenium Theatre of Eastern’s Fine Arts Instructional Center (FAIC), the set for “Cabaret” featured an elevated platform from which a band of contracted musicians played jazz and swing music. On either side of the platform were stairs leading down to the stage, which served as swanky staircases for the Kit Kat girls to dance on.

Staying true to the form of theatre that is “cabaret,” the play featured a flamboyant emcee (Jacob Buckley ’21) and risqué musical numbers and choreography, including an act where the ensemble dressed and danced in drag.

“The choreography was so different from what I’m used to,” said Hannah Avena ’21, who played a Kit Kat girl named Helga. “We had to make contorted shapes with our bodies. To act in a play from a different time period – the way the people dressed and conveyed themselves – was fascinating to me.”

“Cabaret” was originally a book by Joe Masteroff, based on the play “I Am a Camera” by John Van Druten, which was adapted from the novel “Goodbye to Berlin” by Christopher Isherwood.

“Most of the characters are based on real people,” explained Hannah Zammarieh ’20, the play’s dramaturg. Cliff Bradshaw, for instance, is based on Christopher Isherwood himself, who lived in Berlin from 1929-1933 for the purpose of writing a novel: “Goodbye to Berlin.”

“While there are no exact dates for the timeline of the show, based on the time that Isherwood was in Berlin, it can be assumed that the action of the musical takes place during the time when Adolf Hitler was just coming into power,” said Zammarieh. By 1934, one year after Isherwood’s departure from Germany, Hitler had named himself fuehrer (leader) of Germany.

Musical direction for “Cabaret” was provided by Anthony Pandolfe. In addition to an extensive musical career as a freelancer who has performed in such prestigious locations as the Vatican, Pandolfe is director-of-bands at Edwin O. Smith High School in Mansfield. Director Johnson also served as choreographer. In addition to being a lecturer at Eastern, she is the founder of The Complex Performing and Creative Arts Centre in Putnam, CT.