PORT TOWNSEND — Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome — to a “Cabaret” young and fresh.
The Emcee, the English singer and her American paramour: They’re frolicking at Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub, where their world stands on the brink of sweeping change.
The classic musical “Cabaret,” replete with fringed dresses, platinum wigs and the specter of Nazism, opens today for a three-week run at the Port Townsend High School auditorium. Veteran teacher, actor and director Jennifer Nielsen is sailing the ship, having been convinced to come out of retirement for one more show.
“Cabaret,” based on the novella “Goodbye to Berlin” by Christopher Isherwood and directed by Jennifer Nielsen, arrives on the stage at the Port Townsend High School auditorium, 1500 Van Ness, tonight. Curtain times are 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through May 18 with one Mother’s Day matinee at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 12.
Tickets at the door are $10 for adults, $5 for students and $3 for children younger than 12, with proceeds benefiting the school’s trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in June. Parents should note that if this show were a movie, it would have a PG-13 rating.
In a dress rehearsal late last week, Nielsen addressed one of the leads.
“Sally, when you stepped forward to sing that song, I got goosebumps … I get goosebumps just talking about it now,” she told Sorina Johnston, who plays our heroine Sally Bowles.
“Maybe This Time,” her fervent expression of hope for lasting love, is just one of the numbers these Port Townsend High students interpret. John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “The Money Song” is here too, along with “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” “So What?” and “What Would You Do?”
“Cabaret” is near and dear to Nielsen. Yet her students had never heard this music. “They’re ‘Hamilton.’ They’re ‘Wicked,’ ” she said, referring to those more recent Broadway smash hits. Now that the teens have discovered the show, which had its Broadway debut 53 years ago, “they’re hooked.”
As anyone who’s seen it knows, “Cabaret” is not typical school-play fare. And Nielsen, who also teaches world history at Port Townsend High School, emphasized that there are many ways to go with it.
She’s given “Cabaret” a lighter, PG-13 treatment, in counterpoint to what she called the “incredibly dark and bawdy” Broadway revival starring Alan Cumming.
Yet it’s quite a feat, Nielsen said, to authentically portray Berlin during the tumultuous period at the end of the 1920s — while keeping it appropriate for the young cast. Port Townsend’s show is its own thing, “more vaudeville than it’s burlesque, she said, adding that this version’s choreography is one of the elements key to its flavor. Then there is junior Orion Pendley as the Master of Ceremonies.
“He’s fabulous,” performing one of the big musical numbers in drag.
At rehearsal’s end, the students received notes from Nielsen and from professional makeup and hair designer Angela Agnew. Speak up with conviction. Wear your wigs without touching them. Keep quizzing one another until you’ve got your lines down cold.
“This has been a really good environment for building each other up,” said Violet Moell, a member of the chorus. “Everyone is positive,” amid this arduous process.
“We’ve all gotten more comfortable with each other,” added Pierre Ballou, who portrays Herr Schultz, the Jewish fruit seller who romances Fraulein Schneider (Nylah Garling).
Nielsen emphasized how the students in the cast sing, dance and emote on a two-story set they helped build and paint. All of this, she said, has been a course in collaborative problem-solving.
On the stage’s upper level plays the band, composed of flutist-saxophonist RuthAnn Patterson, bassist Nikki Massie, drummer Louis Babik, violinist Lochlan Krupe, pianist Liz Hopkins and trumpet player Maya Dow. For the first time, a student leads the show’s musical ensemble: clarinetist Kincaid Gould, a junior at Port Townsend High.
Dancing at the cabaret below are chorus members including Moell, Grace Wentzel, Cyan Adams, Rosalyn Salmon, Jenessa Siebergross, Rachel Doen, Shawnie Wanosik, Finn O’Donnell and Moe Gardner. Wentzel also plays Fraulein Kost, Sally’s man Cliff is portrayed by senior Bodie LaBrie and Gardner, a freshman, plays Ernst Ludwig, Cliff’s German friend who turns out to be a member of the ascendant Nazi party.
The production crew includes stage manager Harmony Erickson, a sophomore, and students Stella Anderson and Cedar Elliott work with Agnew of Olympia on makeup, hair and costuming. Susan Latham, an adult volunteer, also serves on the costume crew with Cece Nielsen; Cece, daughter of the director, is a Port Townsend High School alumna attending Western Washington University.
Johnston, for her part, seems unfazed about joining the long line of women — from Liza Minnelli to Michelle Williams — who’ve been Sally Bowles. The sophomore finds more than hot music and dancing in “Cabaret.”
“It talks about real issues,” she said.
“It’s an important play to watch.”
For more information, call Port Townsend High School at 360-379-4520.