The Dallas Theater Center’s current production of Cabaret just goes to show: It takes gay men to make something really good. At least in theater.
Wade McCollum, who stars as the Emcee 9pictured center), and director/choreographer Joel Ferrell, are responsible for much of what makes the show a success. Ferrell conceived the show, with its nightclub-like atmosphere of decadence gone amok and McCollum embodies it with his sexually charged but morally ambiguous ringmaster of the decline and fall of the German empire.
The intensely sensuous style is certainly one of its selling points — and it’s not really made up.
“That’s the nature of the show — the Weimar era was a racy time. It definitely evokes the era with lots of undies and titillating things with danger,” says McCollum. “We wanted to be more historically accurate than anything — it’s not about being shocking for the sake of shocking. Genderbending was more prevalent them. It could be hard to tell which boys were boys and which girls were girls, A lot of the clubs were just glorified brothels — the women are for sale and so are the men.”
“Clint Ramos is a strange, wonderful man,” laughs Ferrell about the show’s costume designer, who clad his performers in revealing, minimalist garb that helps hit home the outrageousness of the era. Ferrell cast one of his male actors, for instance, as a Kit Kat girl, exploiting the era’s happy acceptance of androgyny, epitomized by the pants-wearing icon of the time, Marlene Dietrich.
“That’s part of the fun of the show — it really begs you to come at it your way: What do you want to underline?” Ferrell had choreographed a production of Cabaret in Portland, Ore., before, but he had never directed it. But just working on another production gave him a lot of ideas.
“That production taught me some stuff about the show,” he says. “I think there are a couple of characters that usually get lost, like Fraulein Kost,” the prostitute who eventually embraces Nazism and goes from low-life to high-living overnight.
For McCollum, he was happy to create the Emcee in a way that straddled a line between reality and fantasy.
“You can make all sorts of different choices with that role,” McCollum says. “My job is to come in with a banquet of different choices and see what the aim of the overall intention of the show is. He is at once a very human master of ceremonies of a club just doing a show. But there’s a whole other layer, almost more prevalent, of overseeing the world of the play with an energy that could be interpreted a myriad of ways.”
Ferrell, for example, has McCollum perform the small role at the beginning of a train conductor who seems slightly villainous and pro-Nazi, even though that was not written in the script. The effect is to make the Emcee something of a trickster, who manipulates awful world events from behind the scenes.
“Yes, there’s a Luciferian energy to him, “McCollum agrees. “He almost takes delight in the emotional and physical demise of the people in the play — he’s almost a catalyzer of the decay.”
McCollum, a New York actor brought in for the role, has played the Emcee before. For Ferrell, take on Cabaret right on the heels of his last success, Dividing the Estate, was a daunting task.
“I have been asking myself why I decided to go immediately into another show, but no complaints!” he says. “I wanted very much to direct both of them.”
Still, it proved well worth the effort — for him and audiences.