Left: Sally Bowles (Whitney McDonnell ’20) delivers a moving performance of “Life is a Cabaret” Center: Emcee (Sam Kasmin ’21) introduces Sally Bowles. Right: Frau Schultz (Matt Lohmann ’20) and Fraulein Schneider embrace during “Married.” (Courtesy of: Molly Michel '20)
Left: Sally Bowles (Whitney McDonnell ’20) delivers a moving performance of “Life is a Cabaret” Center: Emcee (Sam Kasmin ’21) introduces Sally Bowles. Right: Frau Schultz (Matt Lohmann ’20) and Fraulein Schneider embrace during “Married.”

Courtesy of: Molly Michel '20

“Wilkommen!”: Cabaret Takes Center Stage

April 27, 2020

From March 4-7, Founders Hall was transformed into a Berlin nightclub as the cast of Cabaret took the stage, mesmerizing the audience with song, dance, and humor, all the while addressing topics including racism, sexuality, and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.  The cast portrayed the depressing, serious, and dramatic story so convincingly that audience members forgot this was a high school production.

The cast had been hard at work since Thanksgiving break, under the direction of Musical Director Ben Krauss and Director Jim Ruttman.  The show focuses on the romance of Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer, with Sally Bowles, a British performer at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party.

Putting on a show centered on such difficult topics had been in the minds of the actors as they have worked to create the production. “For those who don’t know the show, Cabaret is very much a different show than those traditionally done at MBS,” Tim Schietroma ‘21, who played Bobby, a Cabaret Boy in the Kit Kat Klub, explained. “It certainly deals with some more mature content, which requires the cast to really consider how we approach each scene with maturity.  The level of maturity required has definitely come from the top down, with Mr. Ruttman and Mr. Krauss setting an excellent example of how the actors need to conduct themselves, this year especially.”

Molly Michel, ‘20, who played Fraulein Schneider, added to this, explaining, “This production is not easy.  For me at least, this is a very emotionally dense role.  Fraulein Schneider has been through a lot in her life, escaping turmoil in World War One, and other revolutions in the German government.”  She added that Fraulein Schneider “is a survivor and has a lot of emotional baggage, and it has been at times challenging to tap into that side of her character.”

Lily Lindstrom, ‘21, a Kit Kat girl, explained, “In this show, the most challenging thing has been how to really ‘sell’ the story.  Because Cabaret takes a turn into some of the world’s darkest moments, we really have to tap into that as characters and show the audience that we are truly living in a cruel time period.”

As the audience walked to their seats they knew the stage was set for a great performance. Members of the Stagecraft course, taught by Director Jim Ruttman, created an impressive two-story set allowing for the orchestra to be situated in the unconventional location of the second floor.  Transitions from a nightclub, to an apartment, to other locations were seamless.  The lights and bright colors allowed the audience to be immersed in the musical.  Camryn Hartkern, ‘20, a Kit Kat girl, specifically commented on the musical’s complexity; she remarked,  “I believe that this production is a bit bigger than most of the others that we’ve done in the past.”

The actors also learned German accents to create a more realistic performance.  Sal D’Agostino, ‘23, a Kit Kat boy, explained, “Since Cabaret takes place in Berlin, Germany, it’s important to make the audience feel like they are in Germany. So to do that, the cast had to tackle an extremely hard challenge, and that is a German accent. German accents are incredibly hard to do, especially for a native English speaker, but the cast has been working hard on it, and I have a lot of confidence that we can make the audience feel as if we are Germans speaking English.”  

Ruttman elaborated on the depth of this challenge and what the cast is doing to prepare.  “We [had] Dr. [John] Girvin working with the students as a group and individually on their accents.  It’s challenging to do German accents and they also have to speak German as well, some characters, and some of them even sing in German. That’s two completely different kinds of ways of approaching German.”

In addition to the accents, another aspect of this production that differed from previous MBS musicals is the number of dance numbers in Cabaret.  Ruttman also directed the choreography in this production, which he has modeled off of Bob Fosse’s choreography in the 1972 film version of Cabaret.  Whitney McDonnell, ‘20, playing Sally Bowles, described the experience of crafting this performance.  She said, “[Mr. Ruttman] has pulled from Bob Fosse’s vocabulary of movement and it’s been so cool to learn a whole new style of dance I’ve admired for a while but never tried before.”  She went on to explain, “Fosse’s choreography is not easy.  The movements are very precise, concentrated, and defy convention.  It’s been fun to break the rules, though.”  

Many of the actors enjoyed both the process of learning the choreography as well as watching others learn from afar.  Matthew Lohmann, ‘20, who played Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor, remarked, “I’ve been so impressed with how quickly it’s come together.”  

Maya Bhide, ‘23, in her first Upper School performance at MBS but no newcomer to the Founders stage after her performances in several Middle School shows, “feels free” when dancing in the show.  She explained, “Though it is tough at times to learn the choreography, the moves are fun to learn, but at the same time challenging as well which is what I love about it.”  

Schietroma commented on the enjoyment of watching dance numbers come together: “One of the most interesting things about the rehearsal process isn’t actually your own scenes, it’s the times where you get to see the other scenes come together and see the hard work of your castmates pay off.  This is especially true when it comes to the larger dance numbers, which there is no shortage of within Cabaret.” 

Ruttman elaborated, “The Kit Kat Girls’ numbers have come together beautifully, as have all of the scenes.  [The show] is incredibly well written, which makes my job as a director much easier, because it’s very clear in the writing what’s happening, and what is motivating an action, and therefore it makes it easy to stage and motivate any kind of staging that I give the actors.”

Some of the actors have seen similarities between their characters and themselves, while others see no semblance at all.  “My character, Sally is an absolute tornado when she walks into a room,” McDonnell explained.  “Learning the blocking for the seventy-five different things she does in the first minute of entering was a challenging, but fun experience.  I’m different from Sally Bowles in just about every way.  I’m definitely a cautious person, and Sally doesn’t think, she does.  However, it’s freeing to play someone like that, because you have to adopt a sense of fearlessness and courage.  To the world outside, she’s not afraid of anything.”  

Schietroma was motivated by the differences between himself and his character.  “Perhaps what excites me most is that Bobby and I are so different from each other.  That completely forces me to rethink every movement I make, even down the smallest of mannerisms.  Bobby is much more flamboyant than I, so it’s definitely fun to have a part where you can project an almost comical confidence.”  

Mik Patankar, ‘21, sees more similarities between himself and his character, Max, who owns the Kit Kat Klub.  He explained, “This role is similar to my other announcer-type roles, but it provides me with a new experience of not being the loud one on stage, but instead I get to be a bit more powerful.”

From her perspective of a Kit Kat Girl, Lindstrom added, “I get the opportunity to create my own character.  All of the Kit Kat Girls are strong, independent women who do as they please. … I’m excited to see how I decide to bring her to life.”

Many of those who were involved in the production, from the crew to the actors, felt special connections to theater and the process of creating a production.  David Liu, ‘23, a Kit Kat Boy said, “What makes a theater production different is the feeling of having a final product at the end.  …  The productions all have a guaranteed goal in the end, which is finishing the performances to the best of your ability.”  

Ruttman explained, “I like working with the students.  I like seeing them challenge themselves and seeing them grow as actors and learn to manage their time well and learn to prioritize and learn to collaborate not only with me, but their fellow castmates.  I just like the process, and I’m excited to see the outcome.”  Always driving his students to push themselves, Ruttman’s favorite part of working on a production is “watching the students get out of their comfort zones and really take a risk and then see the value of that when their risks are rewarded by giving a performance they didn’t really think was possible.”

The story of Cabaret remains remarkably powerful nearly 90 years after it took place.  It is important for MBS to put on productions such as Cabaret which allow members of the community to experience and internalize challenging issues outside of the classroom. McDonnell added shows like Cabaret “teach us to never repeat past mistakes.”  Although set in the 1930s, Cabaret is a timeless classic relevant for any generation, discussing issues that humans have been dealing with for centuries. Ultimately, Cabaret stirred up a great deal of emotions, making the audience laugh, think, and even cry.  The end of the show was described as “chilling;” it definitely left the audience with much on which to reflect.

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