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A haunting, exhilarating, unforgettable ‘Cabaret’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

LIFE IS A … WELL, YOU KNOW | The Emcee (Wade McCollum, center) presides over the last days of a doomed society in DTC’s excellent staging of ‘Cabaret.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

CABARET
Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Through May 22. $10-$80.
DallasTheaterCenter.org

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It’s no exaggeration to say that Cabaret is the best thing the Dallas Theater Center has done since moving into its new digs at the Wyly Theatre almost two years ago. When they took over the space, artistic director Kevin Moriarty said it would take a few years before the artists working there fully assessed what the theater could be. With back-to-back stagings by Joel Ferrell — Dividing the Estate in March, now this — it’s clear that at least one artist has staked his claim on understanding that potential.

Ferrell’s decision to turn the floor of the theater into a nightclub — with cocktail service and café tables and the actors interacting with the audience as they might inside the Rose Room — both gives some attendees respite from the notoriously hard green chairs of the Wyly and a sense for the intimacy and humanity of a musical that, at its heart, is about sweeping ideas and man’s inhumanity.

It’s 1931 Berlin, and the Nazis are rising to power, but for the staff and patrons of the Kit Kat Klub, it’s hard to see that the party’s almost over. They should know it — in Clint Ramos’ tattered costumes, ghastly makeup and walking through Bob Lavallee’s skeletal set, everyone looks hung over and slightly diseased. (So intense is the sexual energy in the buoyant opening number, I had a strong desire to leave immediately and get tested for Chlamydia.)

Cliff Bradshaw (Lee Trull) is late to the party. A stand-in for the gay writer Christopher Isherwood, Cliff hopes the decadence of the city will inspire his next novel. He settles into a boarding house that’s a microcosm for the diversity of the city — and a hotbed of what will rip Germany apart.

Of course there’s Kander and Ebb’s potent score, but Ferrell’s direction is stand-out. His deftness with political subtext, foreshadowing the horrors of the Holocaust and conveying the allure of institutionalized hatred as a rallying point for a defeated and scared proletariat, echoes realities of our own politically divisive society with haunting poignancy. (Sally Vahle, who transforms from street whore to grande dame of the Fatherland, is the starkest metaphor for its appeal. It’s fun while it lasts; après-vous, le deluge.)

Wade McCollum dominates the cast as the Emcee. In red eyeliner, low-slung hip-huggers that barely conceal his junk and a demonic grin that creeps you out and seduces you at the same time, his characterization is equal parts Alice Cooper, Dr. Frank-N-Furter and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Surrounded by his Droogs — the chorus boys, a raucous bunch of muscled hooligans — he presides over the festivities with a flirtatious recklessness (during the Nazi anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” he hyperventilates at the notion of watching the world end), he’s practically the raison-d’etre of the piece.

Practically, but not entirely — no one disappoints. As Sally Bowles, the headliner at the cabaret, Kate Wetherhead is physically delicate but convincingly flighty and self-destructive with a great performance style. Her delivery on “Maybe This Time” lingers. David Coffee and Julie Johnson as the middle-aged couple tentatively staking out a romance form the core of the play’s emotional life. Their doom resonates and the irony of the show’s most famous lyric — “Life is a cabaret, old chum — come to the cabaret” — leaves you breathless by the end.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 6, 2011.

To read an interview with the director and star, click here.

—  Michael Stephens

Gender roles

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ONE OF THESE GIRLS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHER | Walter Lee Cunningham Jr., right, plays his character Frenchie sometimes as a girl, sometimes as a cross-dresser, in Dallas Theater Center’s wild and sexed-up production of ‘Cabaret.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

Life is a drag-aret, old chum — at least it is for Walter Lee Cunningham Jr., who gets all girlie for his role in DTC’s sexy, edgy ‘Cabaret’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Getting cast in Cabaret was a plum gig for Walter Lee Cunningham Jr. Since moving to Dallas from his native Abilene in 2007, Cunningham has been performing around town in shows like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Caroline, or Change. But he had taken off nearly a year before he auditioned for the Dallas Theater Center’s spring musical.

So when he got that call that he’d been cast as Frenchie, “one of the dancers in the Kit Kat Klub,” he was thrilled to be making his DTC debut.

Then he showed up for the first costume fitting,

“That’s when I found out I would be playing a girl,” he says.

Yes, he would be in the ensemble — only not as a Kit Kat boy as he had assumed, but playing one of the female chorines.

That was a surprise for sure, but wasn’t such a big deal for Cunningham: Since 2004, he’s performed drag under the name Jada Fox at clubs around North Texas, including Station 4, the Drama Room and the Rainbow Lounge. No, it was really when he saw his costume that he had his first big gulp! moment — there simply wasn’t that much of it.

“It kind of freaked me out a bit,” he says. “When I do drag, I wear pads to give myself the physique of a girl. Without them, I have the body of a boy.”

Being clad only in a bra, lace panties and sheer stockings didn’t give him much to play with — or hide behind.

As with drag, maintaining the illusion of femininity requires a man to, ummm, “tuck.” That’s not so hard when donning an evening gown for a 20-minute drag show; it’s quite another for a two-hour musical that requires high kicks.

Let’s just say Cunningham has to work harder than anyone else onstage not to let his Pride flag wave too proudly.

“I have to worry about my junk,” he says frankly. “Something could very well pop out. You just have to make it work.” (So far during previews, that hasn’t happened, though it has occurred backstage at unexpected moments.) He also has to sing an octave above his normal range. All in all, it gives new meaning to Faith Whittlesey’s dictum, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did — only backwards and in heels.”

Performing as a female impersonator certainly prepared Cunningham for this role. As with acting, drag requires the creation of a character, and Jada Fox has been described as “a black Barbie doll — I’m not the bitchy queen, it’s just not me.” (When pressed, he compares his persona to Sahara Davenport, the Season 2 contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.)

It’s all part-and-parcel with the concept of the show, a sexed-up, wildly racy updating of “the divinely decadent Sally Bowles,” a British showgirl living in Weimar Germany when everyone was sleeping around with everyone else — male, female … even Nazi. Joel Ferrell directs and choreographs, turning the floor of the Wyly Theatre into a real cabaret with some café-table seating. That gives Cunningham the opportunity to interact with the audience in ways neither he nor most of the attendees are quite used to.

“There’s definitely a game of ‘spot-the-boy,’” he says. “I can see the audience, especially the women, trying to figure me out, It’s kind of funny. It gives me a bit to play with. I’m not trying to freak anyone out, but there was this number [at a preview] where I was looking at these guys and they refused to look at me.” He took it as a challenge.

It becomes easier to spot-the-boy during Act 2, where Cabaret ventures toward Zumanity territory with explicit nudity — none of which bothers Cunningham.

“I personally don’t care — I’m very comfortable with my body,” he says. (At 25, he says he eats all he wants to and only occasionally works out and yet still maintains his lean physique.)

So, is Frenchie a real girl, or just a cross-dressing guy living the gay life in decadent interregnum Berlin? Even Cunningham’s not sure.

“They never told me exactly what they wanted,” he says. “It’s a choice I get to make. I kind of play with it — sometimes I’m really a girl and sometimes not.”

Unless, of course, he pops out of his costume during a performance. At that point, the audience pretty much gets to make the decision for him.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas