“Cabaret” at Indiana University provides entertainment, understanding

Come to the Wells-Metz Theater (on select dates) November 2-11 — and “come to Cabaret” Indiana University produces John Kander and Fred Ebb’s fiery, eerie musical about 1930s Berlin, which traces the seamless, and often overlooked, path to hate.

The playwright helps to keep the meaning of “Cabaret” intelligible.

Chris Mills is the production’s playwright or literary advisor, and this Cabaret’s mission is to deliver on the vision of its director and choreographer, Lauren Houghton Gillis. “Cabaret” is one of those shows that abounds with vision and meaning through both the words and the music.

“Kander and Ebb introduced a range of musical styles,” Mills said, “from Jewish traditions, from vaudeville forms, and from jazz as it lived and evolved in the German context. Houghton Gillis and Mills have had numerous discussions about helping audience members find ideas in the show for their own lives.

“Playwrights often work with playwrights on new plays in development, so they are most in touch with the play as it is being written.”

When the play is already written, as in Cabaret, the playwright’s job revolves around understanding and conveying the meaning of the play as well as the director’s intentions. And of course, meaning is influenced by things like period, history, the playwright’s other works, and the politics of the era.

A play or musical can mean one thing in a certain era and quite another 30 years later or on a different continent.

“SBecause Cabaret is such a beloved work, part of my job,” Mills said, “is to remind us of the play itself—in its original context—as we go through the process. But the most important layer is the director’s vision.”

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Oppression and Tyranny in “Cabaret”

For Mills, theater always makes a statement. In this production, Cabaret is about what happens when the forces of oppression and tyranny germinate and spread in a society.

Cabaret,” she said, looks at what was going on—before—repression was deeply entrenched. Audiences will watch as Adolf-Hitler-led tyranny and subjugation sprout and flourish.

“The power of political action — or the lack of it — underpins both the plot of Cabaret and the moment we live in,” Mills said.

Hate comes easily in Cabaret. The Nazi Party is gaining strength as the show begins; in Berlin it is 1930. We watch people dancing and drinking. As long as hatred is hovering, then it pounces. Because many do nothing to stop it. It’s easy to hate, as we’ll see.

One Woman: Director and Choreographer

Lauren Houghton Gillis is the show’s director and choreographer, as well as a professor at Indiana University, and she enjoys “passing” this production on to her students.

“My favorite part of the evolution is when we’re still in the rehearsal room and I start to see the students take over the show from me,” she said.

Houghton Gillis watches during rehearsals as her ideas, research, training, direction and choreography seep into the young performers. Then the show becomes theirs when they “sprinkle their magic over my vision. That’s when the show comes alive for me.”

A musical is a good tool for teaching students

The Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theater deals with a trio of areas of study: singing, dancing, acting.

“A show like Cabaret,” Houghton Gillis said, “is an opportunity (for students) to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to the stage. It’s a well-crafted, well-written show, with great musical numbers. “

During a very early rehearsal, this journalist noticed how prepared the students were already. They had only had a few rehearsals and the musical number, one of the most difficult in the show, seemed almost complete.

“I’m extremely proud of how collaborative this (production) process was,” Houghton Gillis said, referring to her cast and crew. “The designers were constantly coming to the table with great ideas. There was a real sense of team spirit that extended from the production meetings with the designers right through to the rehearsal room with the cast.”

If you go

WHAT: Cabaret, a musical about 1930s Berlin, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. The book is by Joe Masteroff, based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherud. Music direction is by Brandon Magid.

WHEN: 7.30pm November 2-11 and 2pm November 4 and 11.

WHERE: Wells-Metz Theatre, 275 N. Eagleson Ave.

TICKETS: $15-$25 at https://am.ticketmaster.com/iuartstd/.

NOTE: The show includes references to anti-Semitism, Nazis and sex work.

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