Jerry Crouch’s introduction to both Asheville Community Theatre and its audience came when he emceed the 1987 performance of Cabaret. That edgy musical drama, set in 1930s-era Germany during the rise of the Nazis, is much darker fare than the 60-plus productions Crouch went on to act in and direct for ACT. “I am known as Mister Musical,” he says. From Fiddler on the Roof to Peter Pan to Hairspray, those feel-good song-and-dance shows are what Crouch says he was “born to do. That’s where I’m in my element, in my zone.”
Now, more than two decades later, Crouch returns to the Cabaret — this time, as director. The play opens at ACT on Friday, Feb. 7. Unlike Hairspray and the “feel-good” shows that Crouch has directed in the past, Cabaret is no comedy. It is a musical with a serious storyline and societal criticism. Set in Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret of decadent and sinful celebration, it revisits a time when sex and drinking were taboo. But the club only serves as an ironic parallel to the real atrocities happening with the rise of Adolf Hitler. “You think a little drinking and sex is shocking,” says actress Leslie Lang, who plays Fraulein Kost, a prostitute who works in the club. “[Nazi Germany] is actually shocking.”
The first time Cabaret was staged on Broadway in 1966, it was considered revolutionary. Not only was it one of the first concept musicals, says Crouch, but each song also serves as a poignant social commentary. “I love when I do my big musicals,” says Crouch, “but this one is way past entertainment. It’s thought-provoking.”
Money, politics, sex and race are all fair game in Cabaret. In one scene, Sally Bowles (played by Jessica Pisano) tells Cliff Bradshaw (played by Mark Jones) that she can’t marry him because he is Jewish. Soon after, the emcee (ACT newcomer Kevin Moxley) sings a song to a woman who turns into a gorilla. “If they could see her through my eyes maybe they’d leave us alone,” he croons. “If you could see her through my eyes, she wouldn’t be Jewish at all.” For the first six months or so after Cabaret opened in ’66, some productions changed the original lyrics, replacing “Jewish” with “meeskite,” which translates to “ugly girl” in Yiddish. “The theatergoing population thought it was anti-semitic, which it is,” Crouch says. The point, he says, is to illustrate the character’s prejudices.
Perhaps above all else, Cabaret is a cautionary tale about letting power go unchecked. As Sally says in one scene: “It’s only politics, it doesn’t really involve us.” The irony of that line carries as much weight with audiences today as it did in the ’60s, according to Crouch. “In our day and age, we tend to put people up as demigods and allow them to do our thinking for us,” he says.
While the central themes may be timeless, audience members who caught ACT’s ’87 production of Cabaret can expect some significant character transformations, fresh music and more. The current show features three new songs from the ’72 Liza Minnelli movie version. And where the earlier ACT production took liberties with the original plot, this year’s version adheres more closely to Berlin Stories, the book that inspired the theatrical production.
Finally, the sexual orientations of the characters have shifted — perhaps as a reflection of the times. In the original ’66 production, Cliff Bradshaw was straight. In the ’87 Broadway revival, Cliff was bisexual. In ACT’s current version, he’s in the closet. “You see him coming out over the course of the show,” Crouch says. “The characters are allowed to be more of who they are. It allows for more character delineation and more development.”
This production of Cabaret features a two-story set designed by Jill Summers, choreography by Kathleen Meyers-Leiner, music direction by Lenora Thom and a cast of 15 singers, dancers and actors. Lang says one thing remains true for any production of Cabaret: “Leave your children at home. This is not a show for kids.”
where: Asheville Community Theatre, ashevilletheatre.org
when: Friday, Feb. 7-Sunday, March 2. Fridays and Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, at 2:30 p.m. $15-$25.