May 12-June 28
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In his 1976 memoir “Christopher and His Kind,” British novelist Christopher Isherwood dropped the self censorship he’d employed in past works and wrote freely about his homosexuality. The book focuses partly on his young expat days in Berlin where a permissive social culture and favorable exchange rate allowed him to explore his sexuality away from disapproving England.
But long before his revelatory autobiography, Isherwood remembered aspects of those times in “Goodbye to Berlin” (1945), his classic short novel that over the years has been adapted to stage and screen in various incarnations, most notably Kander and Ebb’s acclaimed musical “Cabaret.”
Set in decadent 1931 Berlin, “Cabaret” (now at Signature Theatre) revolves around the brief but intense relationship between 19-year-old Sally Bowles, a singer at the louche Kit Kat Club, and aspiring young writer Cliff Bradshaw. And depending on the version, Cliff, the Isherwood character through whose eyes we see Weimar Germany on the cusp of the Nazi rule, has been variously straight, bisexual or gay.
“It’s been a long journey for Cliff,” says Matthew Gardiner, the out director and choreographer of Signature’s “Cabaret.” “In the original 1966 musical, he was straight. Though its creators knew better, musical theater at the time wasn’t ready to go beyond that. In our version of the ‘80s revival, there’s no question that Cliff is gay. It’s made clear at his first exchange at the Kit Kat Club. Part of the reason he initially allows Sally to move in with him is to appear straight. He’s not ready to be out.
“And this works so much better,” says Gardiner who won a Helen Hayes Award for directing last year’s “Sunday in the Park with George” at Signature. “It’s not like he’s the perfect American boy. Instead he’s hiding something like everyone else in the show. None of the characters see the world for what it really is. And with all its smoke and mirrors, a nightclub is the perfect setting.”
Isherwood went to Berlin to get laid, he continues. Cliff comes to Berlin in search of inspiration. His romantic life and writing life isn’t working at home. And while the two aren’t exactly alike, approaching Cliff from Isherwood’s perspective helps an actor get a handle on a part that can sometimes read as a bit of a cipher.
Signature’s Cliff, Gregory Wooddell, came into rehearsal with that mindset. He’s created his part around Isherwood. A Broadway veteran (“The Lyons”) known locally for his work at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (“The Importance of Being Earnest,” “An Ideal Husband”), Wooddell recently moved to D.C. from New York. “He’s a compelling actor who though he doesn’t have any songs and his isn’t showiest part,” says Gardiner, “he can still be the center of the story and not fade into the background.”
“Cabaret’s” cast includes Barrett Wilbert Weed (“Heathers: The Musical”) as Sally Bowles, and out actor Wesley Taylor (NBC’s “Smash,” Broadway’s “The Addams Family” and “Rock of Ages”) as the Emcee. Of Weed, Gardiner says she’s “a dynamic interesting non-musical theater-y performer. Her Sally is very different and unique. And there’s something sexy and terrifying about Taylor — his Emcee has a dynamism and athletic presence unlike any you’ve ever seen.”
This isn’t Gardiner’s first date with Isherwood. One of his favorite musicals, Gardiner directed “Cabaret” back in his junior year at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Md.
Because his twin brother (Helen Hayes Award-winning local actor James Gardiner) got all the starring roles in high school, Gardiner decided to forge his own identity as director. He cast his high school muse as Sally Bowles and his brother played the Emcee. In the end, Gardiner says, his brother still garnered the lion’s share of the attention, but the experience was a valuable introduction to his future career.
“In high school, I didn’t dig deep into Cliff’s sexuality. I was mostly mimicking the look of Sam Mendes’ ‘90s Broadway revival,” he says. “And that’s what’s scary about directing a classic like ‘Cabaret.’ Last year when (Signature’s artistic director) Eric Schaeffer asked me to do the show, I jumped at the chance knowing full well that comparisons would be made to Bob Fosse’s iconic film and the Hal Prince and Mendes revivals. And that can be stressful.
“The challenge for me has been to tell it in my own way. And for that I went back to Isherwood’s source material and do the production through Cliff’s lens. Hopefully that comes across.”