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All About SLT's "Cabaret"... and Thoughts of the late Byrne Blackwood

(Poster design courtesy Springfield Little Theatre)

Springfield Little Theatre will present Kander and Ebb's now-classic musical "Cabaret" starting next weekend... not at their usual venue, the Landers Theatre—it’s under renovation at this time—but at Nathan P. Murphy's, 218 S Campbell Avenue. Dates are January 17-February 3.  We were visited on “Arts News” by the show’s director and choreographer Chyrel Miller; Lysander Abadia, who plays the Master of Ceremonies; and the two actresses alternating in the role of Sally Bowles through the show’s three-week run, Ellen Spann and Sally Trtan.

But before we talked about “Cabaret,” I encouraged Chyrel Miller to talk about Byrne Blackwood—longtime theater professor at MSU, a highly valued theatrical set designer both here and around the country--who passed away earlier this week at age 88. “He most definitely was an icon in the theater community, and one that shared the light of theater with so many students and so many people locally in the arts community and all over the United States; and was a leader from the creating of the Missouri Arts Council and the USITT (United States Institute for Theatre)." Miller, a longtime friend of Blackwood's, got the word out about his death on social media.  "The minute the word went out, people popped in from everywhere--it just went crazy. One social media post I did, I had over 280 responses within a 12-hour time period.”

Despite his advanced age, Miller suggested that “B’s” death was actually quite unexpected. “It was a surprise—we all were caught by surprise. He had not been ill.  He was still planning on doing the set for ‘Candide’, which is coming up for Springfield Regional Opera. So he was active up until today. Always a smile, always laughing, always contrary and ornery since the day I met him. So it took us by surprise that he became ill so rapidly.”

Miller marvels at the fact that Blackwood chose to go out “his way,” a la Frank Sinatra. When his medical team told him there was the possibility of his being kept alive but unable to ever leave the hospital, “he got to make the choice to NOT do that. And very few of us get that opportunity. (The decision) is usually made for us by other people. And he got to do exactly what he wanted to do, in the manner that he wanted to do it. And we’re going to celebrate that the best way that we can.”  Blackwood requested there be no funeral service; but, says Chyrel Miller, there will be a memorial celebrating Berne Blackwood’s life sometime in the spring, date to be determined.

Now to Springfield Little Theatre’s “Cabaret” at Nathan P. Murphy’s, which is in part a fundraiser for SLT’s Next Stage Capital Campaign to help pay, among other things, for the renovation of the Landers Theatre. There will be no productions in the Landers until “The Little Mermaid” opens on March 21st. “Cabaret” seemed like a perfect fit for Nathan P. Murphy’s.  Chyrel Miller says they’ve created a “sleazy little show in the most appropriate place you could possibly imagine.”  Seating is limited to 120 per night.

Little Theater will present the 1998 revised version of the Kander and Ebb classic, a production that featured Alan Cumming as the Master of Ceremonies. It features some different musical selections than the Broadway original, including music that first appeared in the 1973 film version.

Lysander Abadia plays the Master of Ceremonies at Berlin, Germany’s Kit Kat Klub, a role made famous by Joel Grey in the original Broadway and film versions of “Cabaret.” “It’s definitely intimidating, a ‘bucket-list’ role that I’ve had for a long time. I’m loving it! I can get away with anything... and I get the pleasure of playing with the audience. It’s not only my job to engage the audience, but to both provoke and protect them at the exact same time—find that line where they can be comfortable enough to experience this extremely decadent, sexualized, drunken time in Berlin’s history, but also telling the story of these characters and the things that they’re going through.”  Abadia won’t be doing a Joel Grey impression as the Master of Ceremonies; in fact, he claims to have been inspired by performers like Josephine Baker and Marlena Dietrich... couple that with this Filipino guy (referring to himself), and somewhere in there is my M.C.” He notes that this 1998 version of “Cabaret” place more emphasis on Hitler’s rise to power, especially towards the end of the show.

Unusually for Little Theatre, the role of Sally Bowles, the British cabaret artist with whom Cliff is smitten, is double-cast: Ellen Spann and Sally Trtan will alternate in the role every other night—and twice on Saturdays (see below). Spann calls Sally Bowles “truly a musical-theater and pop-culture icon that is really an honor to be able to play.  Popularized by Liza Minnelli, I can tell you that both of us bring flavors that are completely different from what she brings.” Sally Trtan says she likes to consider Sally Bowles as “a lost soul who is trying to make her fantasy life her reality, and is not succeeding—and is pretty upset about it. But she will try until her dying day. I think she’s a hopeless romantic.” Ellen Spann agrees, and adds, “like any other role, I see her as an extension of myself.  There’s a bit of ugliness about the character, but I don’t focus on that part.  But you do have to take that as part of the package. Things can be boxed in a pretty package, but nothing is perfect. The story is about a point in time that was very imperfect; nothing is black and white. You can’t just say ‘Weimar Germany was bad.’ It was a wild roller-coaster ride.”

Lysander Abadia goes into some of the historical aspects of the story. “It’s Weimar, Germany [the last years of the Weimar Republic], it’s 1931, and so Hitler is just rising to power—he has not been appointed Chancellor yet. Actually during the 1920s there was a recovery period where Germany looked like it was going to stabilize. But when the stock market crashed in 1929, hyperinflation happened.  And what Ellen said is right: these characters are in survival mode.  It costs thousands of marks to buy a loaf of bread.”

Abadia describes the basic storyline. “Cliff Bradshaw, an American writer, comes to this cabaret and is introduced to the environment and to the characters—especially the character of Sally Bowles. It’s sort of autobiographically based on Christopher Isherwood’s experiences when he was in Germany.”  In addition to Cliff and Sally, there’s another relationship explored in “Cabaret”, between the middle-aged Fraulein Schneider, proprietor of the boarding house where Sally and Cliff are living, and Herr Schultz, a mild-mannered fruit seller who happens to be Jewish.

We have to mention at this point that in the role of Herr Schultz, LT has cast our old friend Haven Miller, one of the first News Directors here at KSMU back in the 1970s. Sandy Skoagland plays Fraulein Schneider, and director Chyrel Miller calls them “the heart” of the show.

LT’s “Cabaret” at Nathan P. Murphy’s is recommended for mature audiences—not least because alcoholic beverages will be served to the audience. The production opens Thursday January 17 and after the opening weekend will run Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30pm; Saturdays at 7:00 and 10:00pm; and Sundays at 2:00pm through February 3rd at Nathan P. Murphy's. General admission tickets are $45-$55. For ticket information call the Landers box office at 869-1334 or visit