Just before “Cabaret” begins, actor Casey DeCaire, in character as the M.C., walks out on the stage and barks at the audience.
“Before we start, turn off your cell phones!” he shouts in a German accent. “Ja! And anything that buzzes. We have many beautiful actors on the stage. We will not touch you, so please do not touch us.”
A warning, because there’s really no dividing line between the audience and the cast in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s presentation of the 1966 Kander & Ebb musical. The stage reaches out between two areas of seating, and some ticket holders will find themselves at small café tables right on the set.
Once the 21st century rules are out of the way, the lights change, the music starts, and we travel back in time some 90 years to the dawn of the 1930s in Berlin, and the M.C. is introducing us to the Kit Kat Klub – the hottest spot in Berlin where almost anything goes.
“We have these characters – Sally Bowles and Cliff Bradshaw and the M.C. – who are drawn to this hub of life,” said director Phil Lacey. “The first numbers, we’re trying to show that part of it – the exciting, the sexy part that everyone wants to be part of.”
But as the time and place would suggest, the carefree lifestyle of the Kit Kat Klub is about to be disrupted.
PLAYING SALLY BOWLES
The star of the show at the Kit Kat Klub is Sally Bowles. The part is played by Tanesha Ross, who grew up in Spokane and has credits that include Broadway and Issaquah’s Village Theatre.
“It’s a role I’ve always wanted to play,” she said. “Getting to be a woman of color who plays it, I think I get to sink into it in a very different way than someone else.”
Publicity for the show notes that Ross is the first woman of color to play Sally Bowles. The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society says it scoured programs from earlier productions, and checked with the copyright holder, and could find no records of Sally being played by an actor of color.
“People want to see themselves on stage,” Ross said, adding that she loves classic musicals, but it’s great to add diversity to scripts that were written mostly with white characters in mind.
Ross says she’s modeled her Sally Bowles after Josephine Baker, the real-life African American entertainer who moved to France and became part of the resistance during World War II. Ross says she’s tried to create a character who publicly seems interested only in entertaining, but is much more politically savvy in private.
And she says audiences will hear some of her lines differently than they would from a white actor, even though the words are the same. In one scene, Sally is fighting with Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer who wants to take her back to the United States as the political climate grows more tense in Berlin.
“And she says, ‘Really? You think it’s better there for someone like me?’” Ross said.
A LARGER EFFORT
The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society has taken pains in the last few years to reshape the way it stages shows. In 2014, a production of “The Mikado” drew criticism when a mostly white cast portrayed Asian characters – many of which were seen as cartoonish stereotypes.
Earlier this year, Gilbert & Sullivan Society board president Catherine Weatbrook told KNKX that they've stepped up their efforts to find diverse actors, actively reaching out to the theater community, and recruiting for productions. Their "Princess Ida" this year was billed as "challenging the canon," by reshaping the meaning of the story and adjusting some of the roles.
And there’s been big turnover on the board and staff. That includes Weatbrook, and Lacey, who joined as artistic director in 2017.
“The works of Gilbert & Sullivan are really beautiful and high-quality pieces, but they are very much a product of their time,” Lacey said. “They’re very limited in scope. So we’re trying to broaden the range and explore what all musical theater can do.”
Lacey says that could include operas from the 15th and 16th centuries, and contemporary musicals – as well as the Gilbert & Sullivan canon. They’re putting on “Pirates of Penzance” in July.
"Cabaret" is on at 12th Avenue Arts in Seattle, now through Dec. 15.