Wonthaggi Theatrical Group Explain How They Escaped the Shadow of Liza Minnelli

Wonthaggi Theatrical Group has a reputation to maintain. Since their invigorating version of Little Shop of Horrors brought them back to attention in 2007, each subsequent annual musical has been more successful than the last. After popular productions of Les Miserables and West Side Story, last year’s version of Oliver sold out entirely. Have they finally bitten off more than they can chew with the eternally-controversial Cabaret?

Fortunately, under the steady guidance of Sydney-based director Colin Mitchell and Musical Director Carmel Slater, they seem to have it all under control. It’s less than a week before opening night, and both seem very relaxed.
Mitchell has wanted to direct Cabaret for years: “I first saw the film when I was at university, that Cabaret song was in the top forty and I hated it, but then when I saw the [Academy Award-winning 1972] film and saw it in context, it changed [my mind].” He explains, “When I heard that Wonthaggi Theatrical Group had the rights to it, I put myself forward.” Wonthaggi Theatrical Group President David Wall explains it somewhat differently: “The very first time I met Colin, he had the book it is based on (Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye To Berlin) sitting on the coffee table, and I thought that if you could see inside his head, you could project the whole [show] onto a screen – he had the clearest idea in his head of how it would all look – lighting, sound, costume, everything.” Wall explains that the group then sourced the rights to allow Mitchell to make his vision a reality.

Mitchell’s multi-talented fingerprints are all over the production – from the set design, which evokes decaying old-world glamour, to the costumes – and the cast and crew seem to have benefitted from this singular vision. There is excitement in the hall during the tech run, and even the setback of two cast members with injuries cannot dampen the mood. Everyone seems unified in their faith in the show and anticipation for the opening night, and there is none of the palpable anxiety which usually infuses the finally tech run of an amateur production.
Also absent is any real concern over how a small country community such as Wonthaggi might react to a musical with themes as diverse and hard-hitting as abortion, homosexuality, promiscuity, Nazism and betrayal. Slater says, “It may end up being a controversial choice” but points out that Cabaret has been performed in the area before, in Leongatha a few years ago. She adds, “It’s got very heavy themes so it’s important not to gloss over those. The poster says it contains adult themes so people will ask if it’s appropriate [for them to see it]. In the end it’s up to people to make the choice.” She adds that the Wonthaggi version is “a lot tamer than what it could be.”

Actor Will Hanley, who has the rather daunting task of bringing the role of The Emcee to the stage, adds, “They’ve changed a few things but it’s not watered down or Disneyfied, those dark themes, the homosexuality is still there, the Nazis, it’s still the same Cabaret, but … I think it’s more showy.”
Slater points out, “Kids see this stuff on Facebook or TV… A lot of parents have said to me that they actually want to bring their kids to Cabaret because it gives them a forum for discussion of these topics… it’s a reference point and it’s quite safe because it’s in a theatre environment.” Mitchell summarises, “Some people will always be offended.”

Slater, who has worked with Mitchell previously on Jesus Christ Superstar, has taken over as musical director from Kirk Skinner, whose reputation for dynamic musical direction in previous shows for the Wonthaggi Theatrical Group precedes him. She describes the task of musical direction for this show as “time consuming and a challenge” but feels confident and aptly proud of the final product. The music will be performed by a 10 piece reduction of the original orchestra (known as a FlexPo orchestra) which will be onstage behind a sheer curtain and has no conductor. Slater says that after “endless hours of rehearsing to get it tight” she now feels confident that they now have it down pat. The orchestra includes a flautist, even though the musical traditionally only has flute parts for four of the songs. Slater wrote flute parts for another fifteen songs herself. She explains that the extra flute “just lifts the top woodwind section.”

One of Slater’s other major contributions was to rewrite the bass and guitar parts: “For some reason the arrangements they sent us didn’t include parts for double bass … it hasn’t been written into this new FlexPo form, because the original score contains a stage band and a pit orchestra.” She also wrote all the orchestra parts for two songs from the movie which aren’t in the book for the original musical ‘Mein Herr’ and ‘Maybe This Time’, working from the piano score and also painstakingly scoring the parts by ear from a CD recording. It seems that all the hard work is worth it as a recording of the orchestra at last night’s rehearsal plays: “It sounds amazing,” she says and it’s impossible to disagree.

The audition process, which incorporated two workshops, an information day and several rounds of auditions, saw approximately one hundred people try out. One might expect that it may be difficult in a small community (Wonthaggi’s population is approximately 6500) to cast a musical with twenty-eight roles. Not so, says Mitchell: “We’ve been very lucky in this community – there are a lot of talented people here.” Slater adds, “It is incredible the amount of talent in South Gippsland. And they’re all locals. Some of [the roles] were hard to cast, because there would be two or three people who were ideal, it was hard to choose just one.”

The pivotal roles, of course, are Sally Bowles, the languid, outrageous flapper made famous by Liza Minnelli in the film, and the Emcee, whose character is so open to interpretation that the role can be played by either a male or female. Hanley says of his Emcee, “Every cabaret that I’ve seen, they’ve done the Emcee very old-fashioned and gritty and not as showy as our version. I think mine is a lot more sexual, a bit more sleazy. In some ways he’s asexual and in some ways he’s very sexual. It’s different.”

Of Sally Bowles, Mitchell explains: “We tried to get away from Liza.” Britt Lewis, who played Eponine in the Wonthaggi Theatrical Group’s Les Miserables in 2009, has taken on the role. She says, “It’s not really that I’m not doing what Liza’s doing; I’m just doing what the script is telling me. She is American in the movie and in the script she’s English; the storylines are different. I am trying to make her frustrating but also endearing at the same time, and very fragile as well, as though she’s running away from something in her past and she’s pretending to be this glamorous star but she’s actually very fragile. She’s a really fun character to play.”
She describes this version of Cabaret as “very natural – Colin directed it in a way which is very natural” and laughs that “I do eat the raw egg [onstage] and then I sing a song after it and it’s a little bit eggy in my mouth – it’s almost method acting.”  She admits that “It’s a controversial choice in this community but I’m glad that they have [done it], I’m glad they haven’t shied away from that [darkness] … I’m glad we left the script intact. There will be a few people who will come and be quite shocked; but I think most people will understand what Colin was trying to do… I’m so excited.”

Cabaret is running 27 May – 11 June 2011 at the Wonthaggi Community Arts Centre, 96 Graham St, Wonthaggi.
Tickets for Cabaret are available from the Wonthaggi Workmen’s Club, ph 5672 1083.