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ECCT explores grown-up themes in musical Cabaret

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

BOWLERED OVER. Kit Kat Club performer Sally (Keri Baggs) is at the center of the action in the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre’s production of the musical Cabaret.
BOWLERED OVER. Kit Kat Club performer Sally (Keri Baggs) is at the center of the action in the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre’s production of the musical Cabaret.

The Tony Award-winning musical Cabaret is many things, but The Cat in the Hat it is not. Nor is it anything like Goodnight Moon, or Mary Poppins, or many of the other uplifting, family-friendly shows produced in recent months by the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Broadway hit, Cabaret a tragic tale of failed love affairs, unwanted pregnancy, societal decay, and ethnic, political, and sexual repression – all against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany.

In other words, unlike many of the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre’s other productions, you’ll want to leave the little kids at home for this one.

That doesn’t mean, however, that older audiences should stay away. In fact, the intimate, cabaret-like setting The Oxford stage will provide for the evocative tunes and dramatic storyline should make this one of the highlights of the theater company’s season.

ECCT Executive Director Wayne Marek says that in recent years the company’s May production has featured “edgier” shows, including Rent, Spring Awakening, and Next to Normal. “The reason we started doing those kinds of shows is to give our adult and college-aged performers a chance to stretch, and to challenge our audiences,” he says. (He gives Cabaret a PG-13 rating – not for language or nudity, but for the mature thematic material.)

And even though it portrays an era 80 years in the past, Cabaret maintains a contemporary vibe. “Unfortunately, the reason why it remains popular is the issues the musical addresses are still relevant today,” Marek says.

Marek, who is also directing the production, said he’s wanted ECCT to stage Cabaret for years. The 275-seat Oxford, which opened in 2010, is the perfect venue, he says. “It’s very intimate; it has that cabaret feel,” he says. “The space here works very well for these types of shows where you want to pull the audience in. you don’t want to them sitting back and observing. You want them intensely involved in the subject matter.”

The action begins in The Kit Kat Club, a seedy cabaret in early 1930s Berlin, which is overseen by the flamboyantly creepy Emcee (played here by Eric VandenHeuvel). A down-on-her-luck performer from the club, Sally (Keri Baggs – in a role made famous by Liza Minnelli), meets a visiting American writer, Cliff (Kevin Grady), and the two begin an affair. Meanwhile, their landlady, Fräulein Schneider (Megan Hashbarger), becomes engaged to a Jewish man, Herr Schultz (Nathan Libby) – a fateful decision considering the political climate. Amid the drama, the provocative performances by the Emcee and the Kit Kat girls comment on the action.

Marek says he hopes the powerful storyline and talented cast will grab audiences and make them feel strong emotions. The action in The Kit Kat Club, he says, serves as an analogy for the characters’ attitude as the world crumbles: “If we just keep singing and dancing, the problems will go away.”

Eau Claire Children’s Theatre presents Cabaret • May 9, 14, 15, and 16, 7:30pm • the Oxford, 1814 Oxford Ave., Eau Claire • $20 adults, $16 seniors, $12 students • (715) 839-8877 • ecct.org