Cabaret would not be a risky choice for most theater companies. The musical about life in 1930s Berlin has been performed widely on both professional and community stages since its 1966 Broadway premiere. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s writings about a decadent city and a lost young English singer called Sally Bowles — a self-centered waif with dirt under her nails and no understanding at all of the darkness about to drown Germany and threaten all of Europe — Cabaret focuses on the goings-on at the sleazy Kit Kat Klub, overseen by a creepy, androgynous Emcee. The plot is a little incoherent, or at least ambiguous: Does the Emcee — who, like so many of Germany’s gay people, will eventually be hauled off to an extermination camp — represent a victim, or the evil in Germany’s soul? Or both? Clifford Bradshaw, the American writer who falls for Sally, may be gay, heterosexual, bisexual or just confused. In performance, these questions tend to vanish, because the characters are fascinating and the music, by John Kander and Fred Ebb, is irresistible.
But for Phamaly, a company comprised of performers with physical disabilities of all kinds, Cabaret is a far riskier and more interesting choice. Nazism’s first victims were the disabled: The persecution began with the forced sterilization of people in institutions, and later became a deliberate and organized policy of murder. Director Bryce Alexander has set Phamaly’s version of the play in one of the seedy clubs in north Berlin where disabled prostitutes plied their trade. The actors also face the stigma attached not only to disability itself, but to the idea of disabled people as sexual beings. For Cabaret, the cast is required to writhe, hump and simulate the sexual act in skimpy costumes. It takes a huge amount of courage for a profoundly disabled person to appear on a stage, and the courage required multiplies exponentially when that person has to flaunt his or her sexuality.
Phamaly has produced some edgy work in the past, including Sideshow, a musical about a pair of conjoined twin performers, but the company’s big summer musicals have usually been cheerful, inspirational crowd-pleasers. But Alexander has just taken over as artistic director from Steve Wilson, who held the position for fourteen years, and he plans to change that. “We’re demonstrating to audiences that disability isn’t all happy-go-lucky,” he says. “Terrible things have happened to people with disabilities. And it’s a huge taboo thinking about sex with disabilities in our society. I wanted to make sure Phamaly was staying relevant and pushing the boundaries.”
The company has been in existence for over 25 years; the $20,000 grant that helped fund Cabaret is the third it’s received from the National Endowment for the Arts. In March, under Alexander’s leadership, company actors toured a production of The Fantasticks to Osaka, Japan. There is also a touring program for Colorado schools.
Alexander has always been interested in the issue of disability, and he began going to Phamaly productions when he was young: “Something about the company really spoke to me,” he says. He studied theater in college and began working with Phamaly as an intern. He has also worked at the Denver Center Theatre Company for Kent Thompson and at the Guthrie in Minnesota. “The thing that kept calling me home was Phamaly, how deeply human and rewarding the work is,” he recalls.
In the past, most of Phamaly’s productions have related directly to disability. But Alexander says he wants to change that focus, too. “I didn’t want to make disability so central,” he explains. “Everyone has struggles. We could explore the human condition more deeply through scripts that were more challenging, that audiences would have to take a little more time to consider.”
The upcoming season, which includes work by Christopher Durang and David Lindsay-Abaire, has been selected with that in mind. “I wanted material that was contemporary,” Alexander says. “I wanted people to realize the art we were producing was the same concept and quality they’d see throughout the country, but they’d never seen this before through the lens of disability. I was very aware that people tend to think of Phamaly as a one-time-a-year company you bring your family to see. Now our actors will talk about identity problems, very adult problems.”
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In this production of Cabaret, the role of Emcee is taken by two actors: longtime Phamaly favorite Daniel Traylor and guest actor Garrett Zuercher, who signs the words. The two work well in tandem, though I was a little confused about their relationship: I thought at first they were representations of the same person; later, it turned out that there was thwarted love between them. Jeremy Palmer is a sympathetic Cliff, and Lyndsay Palmer (his real-life wife) brings a fine voice to the role of Sally. Lucy Roucis and Mark Dissette almost steal the show as Fraulein Schneider and her doomed greengrocer friend, Herr Shultz. But not all of the directorial concepts are clear, and I found the ending ahistorical and somewhat lurid.
“There’s always a risk to producing art that’s a little different than family-friendly,” Alexander observes. “We’ll see if audiences like being challenged to explore and appreciate the deeper levels we explore. The young generation are very interested in being involved in something they believe in. I think Phamaly can provide that.
“This is what the performers have asked for,” he adds. “They feel they’re known because they have disabilities and are part of this feel-good company; they want to be known as artists.”
Cabaret, presented by Phamaly through August 9, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-365-0005, phamaly.org.