Christopher Johnson is about to cross a couple of big ones off his bucket list:
He is co-directing and playing the Emcee in the musical “Cabaret,” which Winding Road Theater Ensemble opens in previews tonight.
“This show has always spoken to me on so many levels,” says Johnson. “And I’ve wanted to play the Emcee forever — he’s scary and joyful and mysterious, and the world of the play is like that.”
The Kander and Ebb musical is based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel, “Goodbye to Berlin.”
It is set in 1931 Berlin, when the city was a hotbed of creativity, excesses and self-possessed characters. At the same time, the Nazis were rising to power. At the Kit Kat Club, where guests are indulgent and oblivious to all but their pleasures, art begins to reflect the harsh realities of the political landscape.
“At that time between the two world wars, there was a huge explosion of modern art, and censorship had been all but wiped out,” says Johnson. “The cabaret was both an art form and a venue.”
Things are raucous inside the Kit Kat Club.
“It’s like a party at the end of the world,” says Johnson.
While the music is infectious, Johnson is not looking to do a feel-good production.
“I think that the musical has been misunderstood in that it is so often produced with such cheery enthusiasm,” he says.
Johnson delved into the history of the time and place, and is directing the production to show the gritty, decadent side of life then.
And he paid particular attention to casting his Sally Bowles, the Brit who sings at the cabaret. Lucille Petty snagged the job.
“Sally is so often presented as this shiny, funny English girl, and we are showing her as the historical figure — a vapid young woman who lived in total illusion and slept her way into every job she got,” says Johnson.
Petty’s musical chops did not figure into the casting. “We cast an actress,” says Johnson, “not a musical theater actress.”
Which was the theory behind the Sam Mendes revivals of 1993 and ’98 (Mendes is doing another revival, expected to hit Broadway next year). In the 1998 production, Natasha Richardson portrayed Sally as a woman worn down by life and broken dreams. Her singing wasn’t brilliant, but it was perfect for that character.
Still, Johnson recognizes that the jazzy score is essential to the play.
“The musical numbers are still delightful; we aren’t fighting that,” he says, adding that a six-piece band will provide the live music.
While he loves co-directing the play with Evan Werner, it is the role as the Emcee that really speaks to Johnson. The Emcee directs all the action in the cabaret and provides a running commentary on the state of the country’s affairs with such songs as “Money” and “If You Could See Her (The Gorilla Song”).
“For me, the Emcee is the embodiment of how art is a way to show more clearly than ever what is really going on — the rise of Hitler,” says Johnson.
You may love the music, and this production, but Johnson wants more.
“We don’t want anyone to have anything to feel good about,” he says. “We’ll have cabaret tables for the first couple of rows. … We want the audience to feel they are in a cabaret. There won’t be any avoiding what’s going on.”
The play, he adds, “Is not about being pretty; it’s about grasping for life.”