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Life is a 'Cabaret' at Peoria Players Theatre

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As Broadway musicals go, dark and steamy aren’t words usually associated with those written nearly 50 years ago. “Cabaret” has always been an exception since it debuted in 1966.

That same musical would be tame by today’s standards, which is why through the years the writers made it sexier, seamier and altogether darker, said Chip Joyce, who is directing “Cabaret” at Peoria Players Theatre. The seven-show run opens Friday, Feb. 6 and continues through next weekend at the theater at 4300 N. University St.

“We are using the script from the latest Broadway revival and I can tell you it pushes the envelope a little more than it has before. It is a little darker with a little more bite than it used to have. I think audiences will love it,” Joyce said.

Asked whether he believed it will offend any of Peoria’s usual theatre-going crowd, he said, “I hope not. I think we have learned the last few years that culturally, we’ve become more open minded. We’ve seen other shows that have been very edgy done here and they’ve been accepted. I think this will, as well.”

Joyce said ticket sales are going well considering it is a small-cast musical and has no children; in fact, children should not see it. “Those are obstacles to overcome for a theatre that needs to sell tickets. I hope people will want to see what we are doing with this show,” he said.

“Cabaret” takes place in 1931 Berlin, just as the Nazis are rising to power. It is based at the seedy Kit Kat Klub and revolves mostly around English cabaret performer Sally Bowles and her American writer lover Cliff Bradshaw. There is also a subplot about the relationship between boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider and Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz, a relationship doomed by the times.

Overseeing everything is the emcee of the Kit Kat Klub, a role made famous on stage and film by Joel Gray.

The musical, based on a 1951 play “I Am a Camera” by John Van Druten,” was written by Christopher Isherwood, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.

At Peoria Players, Joyce is using a 16-piece live band that mostly is behind the set but occasionally comes out front during the show. The band and music is directed by Laura Hughes, with choreography by Danny Fischer.

Joyce said “Cabaret” is a show he has long wanted to direct and one he has submitted at different local theatres for several years, hoping one would let him direct it. “I am very proud of this one. It is everything I’ve always promised it would be if I got the chance,” he said.

The first thing that will strike the audience is the set, the stage made to look like a dilapidated cabaret, complete with eight tables at the front of the stage for patrons to use for a premium ticket of $25.

Joyce designed the set based on photographs of an abandoned Berlin cabaret he found on the Internet. “I wanted it to look as authentic as possible with certain elements I felt were important to put in it, like the spiral staircase and the firemen’s pole. Those are things you don’t see on a Peoria stage. But we made sure it is safe and secure for our performers,” he said of the set built by Marc Wycoff and Chris Franken.

The cast of 16 includes performers who are new to Peoria stages, but is anchored by local theatre veterans with the chops to perform this play.

Erica Franken, who has wowed local audiences for several years, including as Velma Kelly in “Chicago” at Corn Stock Theatre, portrays Sally Bowles. “This is the best performance I’ve ever seen her give,” Joyce said.

Aaron Elwell, one of the stars of “Spamalot” this past summer at Corn Stock, portrays the emcee. “He has certainly risen to the occasion on this one. This has always been one of my favorite musical theatre roles and he does great,” Joyce said.

Chris Leasor, a veteran at Corn Stock, is doing his first Peoria Players show in the role of Cliff Bradshaw. “Chris doesn’t do a lot of musicals, but this is a role he wanted to play. I’m glad he did,” Joyce said.

For the roles of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, Joyce believed good chemistry would be important for these lovelorn characters. He found it with John and Laura Johnson, husband and wife and veterans of many shows throughout central Illinois. Yet this is the first time they have played opposite each other.

“Cabaret” has been rehearsing more than three months, Joyce said, “so it’s great that this cast bonded quickly. I think that brings a certain energy to the show.”

Show times for “Cabaret” are 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 6, 7, 12, 13 and 14 and 2 p.m. on Feb. 8 and 15. Tickets are $18 for adults and $12 for those 18 and under. They can be purchased by calling 688-4473 or online at www.peoriaplayers.org.

The VIP seats at the tables in front of the stage are $25 and can only be purchased by calling the box office at 688-4473.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).