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Erin McConnell knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But she’s also been waiting 21 years for the chance to do it.
That chance culminates tonight, Friday, March 15, when she’ll star as the iconic, enigmatic and menacing emcee in StageQ’s and Out!Cast Theatre’s production of “Cabaret.” And nobody is more aware of the weight of the undertaking than she.
No pressure, right?
“It’s terrifying,” she admits. “If the role doesn’t work, the show doesn’t work. And people have strong feelings about what they want the character to be.”
The touchstone is typically Joel Grey’s creepy performance in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film version, the one that earned Liza Minelli an Oscar. Then Alan Cummings made the role his own in the 1998 Broadway musical revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s classic. Count McConnell as a card-carrying member of the latter fan club.
But just because she’s a fan doesn’t mean she’s going to be an imitator. In StageQ’s production, the Emcee is gender fluid — an accordion-playing everyperson who skulks around the stage in nearly every number, pushing the action forward for the characters who drift in and out of the Kit Kat Klub, leaving their proverbial troubles behind while the world outside devolves into fascism, fear and violence. You know, absolutely nothing like 2019 America.
More than one person has pointed out the similarities between the emcee and Bridget, the sinister maid McConnell played in last year’s Music Theatre of Madison production of “Lizzie.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to be pigeonholed into playing characters who are punky and queer,” says McConnell, who handles music direction duties for local theater productions more frequently than she appears on stage. “Outsized characters who are also plot drivers.”
That describes the emcee perfectly. But here, the gender aspects of the role were the biggest puzzle for McConnell to solve.
“You have this idea of a very slim man in a tux or a deconstructed tux — sort of femme-aggressive, very distinct. And I am most assuredly none of those things,” says McConnell, who notes that there was actually some pushback from the local theater community when they learned a woman would be playing the part. “In the end, as a team, we decided that the character was non-gendered, which was always my preference. By being free of that construct, they’re everyone. Which I feel is very essential to the role.”
Even though its original bent took aim at Nazi Germany and the fall of the Weimar Republic, “Cabaret” has always maintained its relevance. Against the backdrop of the current political landscape, it’s not difficult to see why. But recognizing modern similarities isn’t the be-all and end-all.
“You want to point that out in a way where people aren’t bummed out by the now-ness of it,” McConnell observes.
McConnell is fascinated by the ways “Cabaret” functions as a modern morality play, with each of the characters — from Sally Bowles (played here by Kiki Moritsugu) to her American lover, Cliff Bradshaw (played by Brett Kissell) — representing a different type of response to the encroaching menace of the Nazi regime.
“The enduring question is always, ‘What would you do?’” says McConnell. “Everyone in this play says, ‘I don’t care.’ The current iteration of the show addresses that apathy. But also the heaviness of what’s creeping in. I like that this version doesn’t let you off the hook.”
Because it’s a musical with lots of cast members, choreography and moving pieces, a lot of pre-coordination was required. Plus, director Steve Noll had to ask Dana Pellebon, who directed McConnell in “Lizzie,” to step in and assist while he dealt with a medical issue.
“The whole show had to be put together before I could put myself into it,” says McConnell. “It made me antsy — I was in limbo. I was thinking, ‘How do I not go out and sing cast recording A?’”
Smart money says she figured it out pretty quickly.
“Cabaret” runs through March 30 in the Bartell Theatre’s Drury space. For ticket information, click here.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.
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