Broadway ‘Cabaret’ comes to Downers Grove stage

You know what they say about life — it’s a cabaret.

And you can come to the cabaret when the Downers Grove Players present “Cabaret” April 25 to 27 and May 2 to 4 and 9 to 11. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays at the Lincoln Center in Downers Grove. It is directed by Mike Manolakes of Bolingbrook.

“Cabaret” is a musical based on a book written by Christopher Isherwood, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. The 1966 Broadway production became a hit, spawning several productions and revivals in New York and London, as well as a 1972 film. It’s the film starring Liza Minnelli that most people are familiar with, which was only loosely based on the Broadway production.

Manolakes had a role in a production of Cabaret in 1980, so he was familiar with the play.

“It’s a fun play, but it’s not a happy play. It’s a musical, but not a musical comedy,” he said. “Things don’t really work out too well for the main characters.”

“Cabaret” takes place in 1930 Berlin, between the two World Wars. There are many different political movements brewing in Germany at the time.

“It’s a terrible time for Berlin. People are out of work, they have no money, they’ve been defeated in a war, their empire’s been dismantled, and the place where people go to escape their troubles is the cabaret,” he said. “And so much of the story takes place in the cabaret, where it’s mildly risqué entertainment probably, but people go to escape their troubles.”

At the center of “Cabaret” is the Kit Kat Club, where a 19-year-old English singer named Sally Bowles meets a young American writer named Cliff Bradshaw.

“They end up living together. Unfortunately, he sees what’s happening in Germany, and she really doesn’t. And what’s happening is the rise of the Nazi Party,” he said. “We have another pair of characters is an older couple, Fraulein Schneider, the landlady, and Herr Schultz, who is a fruit merchant, and they fall in love also. The problem is he is Jewish and she realizes that when the Nazis come to power it will be trouble for both of them. So that (romance) also does not end happily.”

The gradual rise of the Nazi movement is prevalent throughout the play; in fact, the Kit Kat Club is a metaphor for Germany.

“By the end of the play, we know that this madness is going to consume Germany,” he said. “It’s a play that belongs in a very specific historical time and place.”

On paper, this sounds like kind of a bummer play. So why is it still so popular? The music.

“The music is great, of course. We have some wonderful songs performed by some very talented people,” he said. “I think people are interested in knowing about this time in history and understanding that these are not evil people, but evil did take over this place. And we need to understand why this happened. We’re fascinated by why this happened.”

If you’ve seen the movie version, you are in for a surprise — it’s quite a bit different than the stage production. Additionally, the version Grove Players is doing isn’t the same as the most recent Broadway revival, he said. Coincidentally, a new Broadway revival opened April 24.

“The version we’re doing is the 1987 revival, which incorporates some of the things from the movie, but doesn’t have some of the extreme changes that they made for the most recent version,” he said.

Audiences should prepare themselves for a night of great theater, Manolakes said.

“We hope to keep the audience guessing a little bit about what’s coming up and what’s going to happen to these characters,” he said. “If all you know is the movie, this is going to be a new experience. Or if you’ve never seen a production of ‘Cabaret’ on stage before, there will be a few surprises along the way.”