Stephen Hitchcock said that most people think of him as “the boy-next-door type,” so it may come as a surprise that he’s reveling in playing the leering, sneering, malevolently mischievous Emcee in the Forum Theatre’s revival of “Cabaret,” which opens this week.
“I’ve always wanted to play the Emcee, but everybody thinks I’m more like Cliff,” Hitchcock said of the naive American writer who stumbles across romance, decadence, freedom, prejudice and wrenching change in his quest for story ideas in Berlin in the early 1930s.
The in-your-face Emcee, on the other hand, introduces questionable nightclub acts at the tawdry Kit Kat Klub, where all manner of humanity comes to play.
“But the Emcee isn’t completely out of my comfort zone,” said Hitchcock, known for any number of Dudley Do-Right-type roles at Mosley Street Melodrama and the appropriately named Hero of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at the Forum. “He’s not really scary, even as I explore his darker side and his androgyny. He is sort of the id of the show. Whatever feels good, that’s what he wants to do.”
“I think of him as a real person rather than just the decadent spirit of the times. I read where a lot of cabaret performers in Berlin at that time used their performances to make political statements. He can be a jerk, so I’m not sure I would be best friends with him in real life,” Hitchcock said.
“But maybe as a bar buddy,” he added, “because he can be a lot of fun.”
The multiple Tony Award-winning show, adapted by Christopher Isherwood from his short novel, “Goodbye to Berlin,” has music by Kansas City native John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb of “Chicago” fame. Songs include “Willkommen,” “Money” and, of course, the rousing title tune that asks “What good is sitting alone in your room? Come to the Cabaret.”
Director Kathryn Page Hauptman said people who know only the 1972 movie starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York and Joel Grey will notice that the stage version has plot differences. There is still the quirky relationship between American writer Cliff and British nightclub singer Sally Bowles.
But the secondary pairing, instead of the affair between a young Jewish heiress and a closeted Jewish gigolo created for the movie, revolves around the original story of a doomed romance between a middle-aged rooming house owner and her widowed Jewish suitor.
This stage version, Page Hauptman said, is a combination of the Broadway original, the movie and the 1993 London and 1998 Broadway revivals that made the sexuality more explicit.
“What’s important about ‘Cabaret’ is that it shows the danger of being complacent,” she said. “Individuals have a responsibility to be aware of, to be involved in the world around them, even when it can be uncomfortable. We want people to ask themselves, ‘What would you do if you saw this happening around you?’”
Allison Nock and John Keckeisen as the young vagabonds, Sally and Cliff; Patty Reeder and Dan E. Campbell as the forbidden middle-aged lovers, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz; Ray Wills as Ernst, a cagey German pornographer desperate to get his “art books” translated; and Briley Meek as the shopworn prostitute Fraulein Kost.
Playing the sexy Kit Kat Klub girls are Meg Parsley, Emily Pirtle, Sarah Gale McQuery, Rachel Chinn, Katherine Randolph and Meek. The men’s ensemble includes Craig Richardson, Jordon Snow, Michael David Allen and Ryan Ehresman.
Karla Burns is music director with Tim Raymond at the keyboards, leading a nine-piece orchestra in an elevated niche behind the stage. Parsley is choreographer, with set by Ben Juhnke, lighting by Tyler Lessin and costumes by Page Hauptman.
“Sally Bowles is definitely a complex girl,” said Nock, previously seen in Crown Uptown’s “A Chorus Line” and as Sally in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” “She has a lot of layers. She came from a middle-class upbringing, but broke out to find excitement at 19. She’s been through a lot but puts up a confident facade.”
“I love playing her levels, her highs and lows,” she said. “She is young and full of excitement, full of life despite her mood swings. She isn’t quite sure that she’s talented enough to be a star, but she wants it so badly that she feels best on stage where the Emcee says ‘life is beautiful.’ That’s her safety net.”
Cliff, the American writer who falls for Sally, is perhaps a decade older but much less experienced, said Keckeisen, a Wichita State University theater graduate who spent two summers in the resident company of Music Theatre of Wichita with featured roles in “Singin’ in the Rain” and “9 to 5.”
“Cliff is an interesting mix of passion and reserve,” Keckeisen said. “He’s educated, but he’s confused. He comes to Berlin to find the next big thing in his life to write about, but he’s a little naive about what it should be. He’s got his head on his shoulders, and he’s polite.”
“But there is a dark side to Cliff, which includes confusion over his sexuality. We find that he’s just as flawed as Sally, which is what makes them such a great couple,” said Keckeisen, who sings the haunting ballad “Don’t Go,” which was cut from the movie.
“It gives us a chance to restore Cliff to a musical role from just an acting role. It fleshes him out,” Keckeisen said. “When he runs across Sally Bowles, he sees through her life all the things that he could want.”