This interesting twist on the ageless stage classic casts a female as the Emcee
SAN DIEGO – Fans of "Cabaret," since it premiered on Broadway in 1966, have been privy to many reprisals on stage. The film version directed by Bob Fosse, won eight Academy Awards. Icons such Liza Minnelli (Sally Bowles) and Alan Cumming (Emcee) have left memorable imprints on the unforgettable story of cabaret singer Sally Bowles and her American friend and writer, Cliff Bradshaw.
In the hit production at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town San Diego, Artistic Director Sean Murray breathes new life into the Kit Kat Klub and the “Cabaret” characters. He transports the audience to the tumultuous time before Hitler’s rise to power in such a seemless way, that you are sucked in by the comedy, and by the end of the night, truly forget your worries, just as The Emcee promised.
Murray’s vision has been so well-received that Cygnet Theatre has extended the "Cabaret" run through May 22.
Local actors Karson St. John (The Emcee)> and Joy Yandell (Sally Bowles) spoke with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about their roles, their lives in San Diego, and why you need to see this play.
St. John and Yandell, like many theater-goers, were already familiar with "Cabaret" before they auditioned for their roles.
"I knew the show very well," St. John said. "I saw the movie, too, plus I was a Kit Kat girl in a student production my sophomore year in college. As a teacher, I combined bits from all the different versions, and directed my high school students in what was likely one of the least shocking and sexually provocative versions.”
"I saw the movie when I was about 14," Yandell said. "I also saw the production [that] Sean Murray directed at the North Coast REP. I remember how haunting and beautiful it was then. Jim Chovic and Linda Libby were the characters I could not let go of when the night was over - they were beautiful! I am thrilled to now be sharing the stage with them.” Chovick plays Herr Schultz and Libby portrays Fraulein Schneider.
Taking on role Liza made famous
For Yandell, taking on the role of Sally Bowles was a dream come true. "Sally's fantastic! Doesn’t every girl want to play Sally Bowles?" she asked.
"With a spectrum of characterizations from Liza Minnelli to Natasha Richardson, I wanted to find the Sally that came to me honestly through the story, words and songs; a Sally that didn’t feel like a stereotype.
"Working extensively with Sean, we created a Sally with heart," Yandell continued. "She is a perfectly marvelous girl, who strives to hide her darkness and broken past, and we used all her songs from both the stage and movie versions.”
St. John was also enamored with the role of Bowles and auditioned alongside Yandell for the part. During the third and final audition, she thinks Murray must have seen something in her, because the next day he called her and offered her the role of The Emcee.
“I was stunned,” St. John recalled. “But after a moment, I was like ‘absolutely’ and I changed tactics. I showed up the next day feeling more like a powerful dominatrix creature and sang a couple of the songs. He offered it to me on the spot. I think it was a surprise to both of us.”
Was she nervous taking on a role previously played by men?
"Yes and no," she said. "Yes, because it was evident that this was a unique situation and people would want to see it to believe it. But no, because oddly, I felt more comfortable as the Emcee. I told myself that was my role and I feel like I really owned it. There have been a lot of expectations and it has been exciting to prove myself.”
As a woman, St. John also feels there are unique characteristics she brings to the role.
“I am not trying to be the same Emcee like the classic effeminate males," St. John said. "I am taking it to a very masculine but female place that is totally different. My intention is to do something that only a woman can do with this role.
“I represent fascism in a seductive way, where there’s the ability to draw people in, have them committed, and all of a sudden they are willing to do whatever for you. There was something about being able to use my sexuality to [convey that]. I am definitely doing something different as a woman that a man could not do in this role."
So far, she feels audiences have accepted her in the role.
"I know there are skeptics and that I have to prove myself, but I sense the shift pretty easily in the beginning of the show, and by the end, I think I get a very positive response."
Favorite production numbers
Concerning favorite scenes, St. John and Yandell each hail one particular number above the others for personal reasons.
“I had the most fun with the most challenging musical performance, which is the 'Money Song,'" St John said. "It’s a version that is rarely seen, and fortunately, I can tap. In it, I get to be this diva wearing a mink. It’s a total ridiculous number, but it’s fun, and feels like a classic along the lines of ‘42nd Street.’”
Yandell, on the other hand, admits that her favorite number has everything to do with vanity.
"It is ‘Mein Herr,’” she said. “After having two kids and being over 200 pounds twice in my life, belting out a song while dancing in a garter belt and a leather jacket has been more than liberating. I am woman, hear me roar!”
Although both women feel they have been challenged artistically, both have enjoyed playing their roles tremendously.
“Like Sally, I want to be thought of as fun, thriving and bigger than life,” Yandell said. “Being on the stage I feel vibrantly alive and magic. However, like Sally, I don’t take it easily when things don’t go my way, and my green monster comes out from time to time. My jealousy comes in the color of jade.”
Yandell also listed the following five Sally Bowles attributes that she has learned and that could be helpful for everyone to apply in their own lives:
1. Just leave well enough alone.
2. A tiger is a tiger, not a lamb.
3. People are people.
4. From cradle to tomb, isn’t that long a stay.
5. Life IS a CABARET!
San Diego’s sunshine and vibrant theater community
Yandell and St. John have nothing but good things to say about San Diego as a whole, and especially its vibrant theater community.
Yandell was born in Spring Valley.
"So much has changed around there since I was a kid,” Yandell said. "But my parents still live in the same house I was born in, in Casa de Oro. My mom was a kindergarten teacher and always had us on the lookout for fun ways to learn about the world.”
Despite her sense of adventure, it was not until she was 20 that Yandell left San Diego. “I went to La Grande, Ore., to work on a second degree in theater performance, but I hardly lasted the winter. In the spring, I got an offer to intern in education and teach musical theater for the La Jolla Playhouse summer student programs, and I moved right back home to the sunshine.
“We have everything thing here!" she added. "Beautiful weather, mountains, beach, desert and an amazing theater community. San Diego has always provided an amazing creative outlet for me and I have been blessed to perform when my heart needed to create.”
Yandell’s first musical at the age of 6 was with John Carradine at the old Fox Theatre (now Copley Symphony Hall). She also performed with the original cast of "Jersey Boys," and played Janis Joplin in “Beehive” on the same stage where she is now performing as Sally Bowles. Additionally, she is a recipient of San Diego Critics Circle award for her performance in MiXtape at the Lamb’s Players Theatre.
“Working on the independent film 'Maggie and Annie' was the farthest I have walked off the San Diego canvas,” Yandell said. “I have never felt the need to ‘chase’ a dream outside of San Diego, but if I was going to, I would attempt film again.”
For the moment however, Yandell has no plans to move. She lives in Escondido with her husband Michael and her two children, Waverly and Charlton.
St. John, on the other hand, arrived in San Diego via New York, where she was born and raised just outside of the city.
“After college, I went to NYC and started doing the audition thing, but I quickly realized I was missing the cut-throat drive necessary to survive,” St. John said. “It wasn’t in me to wait eight hours in line to do something for three minutes. There were always hundreds of women like me or better than me, and I didn’t enjoy the process.”
According to her bio, St. John briefly left the stage to teach at the Montclair Kimberly Academy. For five years, she taught high school theater, dance and yoga.
“Because I was teaching so much, though, I couldn’t perform as much as I wanted to, so I knew it was time for a change,” St. John said. “I chose to move to San Diego because I knew I wanted to come to Southern California, but I didn’t want to go to LA because it felt like the same scene I was not feeling in NYC.
“I have the dedication and drive, but I don’t need the competition where I feel I am not skinny enough, or blond enough, or whatever, and it is easy to fall into that in LA and NYC," she said.
"I am not about trying to get famous, I just want to perform and do the art, and San Diego has that for me. I have had lots of opportunities, and there’s so much talent that I get to perform with here. This city really has the perfect balance of professionalism and opportunity."
In San Diego since 2008, St. John said of her new life, "I think I have always had a Southern-Cali-girl in me, but didn’t know it 'til I got here."
St. John lives in the Ocean Beach community and feels quite at home. "It feels so nice to slow down, breathe and enjoy the beach and the weather. I love New York and it will always be home, but I just got to a point in my life where I wanted to live in the moment, and OB really gets that mindset.
"It was actually really exciting for me when I moved here, because except for one pair, I sold all of my high heels,” she added. “In New York I lived in high heels. I would go to CVS in my heels, and I flew across the country with a dozen pair of heels. Now I have one pair for galas and opening nights, and wear nothing else but flip flops all the time. I get to wear cool shoes in shows, and save a lot of money."
If you were to spot St. John and her fiancé in OB, she would likely be in her favorite pair of Reefs or the new pair of Snooks they both purchased at the Newport Surf Shop, which may just be her new favorite pair.
Cabaret at Cygnet Theatre
Step into the magical world of the Kit Kat Klub, and catch St. John and Yandell’s magnificent performances through May 22.
"Especially for people who have seen ‘Cabaret’ a bunch of times, this production will be particularly gratifying because it’s not the same," St. John said. "Not just because of my role, but Sean’s has managed to draw out one of the most creative and uniquely interpretations … it has not been done this way before. It’s exciting as an audience member to see a new interpretation of a classic show you know very well."
Nightly performances take place Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with afternoon performances on the weekends.
Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office.
Easter Sunday, April 24, enjoy a $10 discount on each ticket purchase, for either the 2 or 7 pm performances. Use promo code: OSTERN
Sneak peek …