Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Broadway vets stage a ‘survival story’
THEATER: ‘CABARET’ COMES TO RIVERSIDE
BY EDIE GROSS
Penny Ayn Maas takes a moment to artfully arrange five dancers along a narrow spiral staircase before turning her attentions to stage right during a recent rehearsal at Riverside Center Dinner Theater.
There, on a landing above the stage, Nicole Foret Oberleitner locks eyes with Maas, the choreographer and co-director of “Cabaret,” before beginning to sing.
Never breaking her gaze, Oberleitner effortlessly throws her left leg over a railing, then swings it across her body and over the opposite railing before slinking seductively down the spiral staircase to the defiant notes of “Mein Herr.”
“That, I like,” says Maas with a loud clap.
“Nicole’s amazing. She’s kind of the full package,” Maas says during a break.
“Like that leg. It’s not just leg—it’s leg with more than I could ever give her,” she says, laughing. “Then I get to say, ‘See what I did. I did that. That’s my choreography.’”
There’s a whole lot of leg to choreograph in “Cabaret,” a racy, dark drama set in a seedy 1930s Berlin nightclub. Inside, girls with painted faces and fishnet stockings perform onstage—and off—for money, while outside the Nazi war machine whirs to life.
The show, which opens Saturday night, is more sinister than recent Riverside productions, but co-director Patrick A’Hearn said he hopes audiences embrace it.
“This, for our audience, is going to be extremely dark, but there’s no way around it. If you’re going to evolve as a theater, you have to do that,” said A’Hearn, the theater’s associate artistic director since May 2010.
“This is not ‘White Christmas.’ This is not ‘Hello, Dolly!’” he said. “Audiences have to want to come in here and be pulled into this world, and they have to bring their emotions with them.”
The musical picked up eight Tony awards when it first appeared on Broadway in 1967 and another seven during a revival 31 years later—a show Maas actually performed in.
In fact, Maas, Oberleitner and A’Hearn all bring Broadway experience to the ’Burg along with a host of other musical theater credits.
BROADWAY IN THE ’BURG
Oberleitner, who plays lead character Sally Bowles, was part of the original Broadway cast of “Urban Cowboy” as well as pre-Broadway productions of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Harmony,” a show also set in pre-war Germany.
A’Hearn performed in the original Broadway production of “Les Misérables” and in Broadway and national tours of “Chicago,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The King and I” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
Maas appeared on Broadway in “Crazy for You” and “Damn Yankees” before joining the 1998 revival cast of “Cabaret” as a dancer at Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub.
In that production, the dancers were ordered to immerse themselves in their characters, recalled Maas. They weren’t allowed to shave their legs or underarms during the show’s run, she said, and they routinely circulated through the audience before each show—sporting skimpy outfits, fake track marks on their arms and bruises under their eyes—chatting up men in thick German accents.
The Riverside production is heavy but doesn’t go quite that far. There are several fun, foot-stomping numbers and plenty of beautiful singing, said Maas.
There’s an important message too, she said. While the characters enjoy a relatively carefree life inside the cabaret, they ultimately pay a price for ignoring the political storm brewing outside, one that eventually engulfs the world.
“We tend to downplay political events sometimes that can have effects far beyond politics,” she said. “They can affect people’s lives.”
‘THE PERFECT THING’
“Cabaret” was originally slated for last season—Riverside’s highest-grossing and best-attended ever—but was bumped when the theater received the rights to produce “Chicago,” said A’Hearn.
He had loved the 1998 Broadway revival of “Cabaret,” starring the late Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles, so he proposed it for this season.
The show focuses on the relationship between Bowles, a young British woman performing at the Kit Kat Klub, and American writer Cliff Bradshaw. It also follows the bittersweet romance between boardinghouse landlady Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, the Jewish owner of a produce shop.
“The real love story for me in this is Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. It’s the heart of this story,” said Maas. “They find love and then she feels she must give it up. The biggest loss is their relationship.”
After 20 years of performing in New York, Maas decided to earn a master’s degree at Virginia Commonwealth University in how to teach theater. She said she heard about the Riverside production through classmate Jason Michael, the show’s music director, and one of her professors, Patti D’Beck, who is slated to choreograph and direct “Phantom” at Riverside later this year.
They suggested she meet with A’Hearn, and the two Broadway veterans clicked. Now in her last semester at VCU, Maas juggles classwork and teaching responsibilities with her work at Riverside. A’Hearn does the same, balancing co-director duties with performances in “1776,” which opened at Ford’s Theatre on Friday.
Maas said it’s been a “fun challenge” to choreograph the dance numbers, some of which have an ominous air. She plans to choreograph Riverside’s next production, “Anything Goes,” which starts in May.
“I’m loving it,” she said of working at Riverside. “It really turned out to be the perfect thing.”
Oberleitner started her career at 15, performing in shows at Kings Dominion. She later acted, danced and sang on cruise ships around the world, in Atlantic City and in New York, where she enjoyed a “complete bucket list moment” by performing in “Fosse,” a musical tribute to noted choreographer and dancer Bob Fosse.
She returned to Richmond five years ago and heard about this Riverside production from a friend.
“I had never performed in ‘Cabaret’ before, but I had always wanted to. After working with Patrick and Penny in the audition, I knew this was going to be an amazing experience,” she said in an email. “They are both Broadway veterans, and they know this show inside and out—Penny performed it and lived it for years. I just feel so lucky to be a part of this production.”
Oberleitner said she knows the show’s subject matter is difficult, but she has a personal interest in it.
While performing World War II-era songs with the USO Liberty Bells and her own relatively new group, The Bellini Sisters, Oberleitner said she’s met lots of veterans from the era portrayed in “Cabaret.” She has family who fought in the war and a dear friend who survived three concentration camps.
It’s important, she said, for audiences to have an opportunity to explore that time through theater.
“This is a show about real people and how they grew and changed during a hard time. It’s a survival story,” she said. “I believe theater, art, should affect us—the artist and the viewer. We should walk away from it having been entertained as well as having learned something. Theater should evoke an emotion or spark intellectual curiosity. I believe ‘Cabaret’ does just that.”
WANT TO GO?
“Cabaret” opens Saturday and runs through April 29 at the Riverside Center Dinner Theater, 95 Riverside Parkway in south Stafford.
Shows take place on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Tickets range from $37 to $58, and in some cases, dinner is included.
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428