Like the live nightclub genre for which it was named, “Cabaret” has a way of meaning different things to different generations.
Written as a musical for the stage in 1966, with John Kander’s music, Fred Ebb’s lyrics and Joe Masteroff’s book, “Cabaret” evolved from the 1939 Christopher Isherwood short novel “Goodbye to Berlin” into the 1951 John Van Druten play “I Am A Camera” before becoming a hit Broadway musical and then a 1972 movie that won Academy Awards for its stars Liza Minnelli and Joel Gray as well as director Bob Fosse.
Its revivals have been numerous and successful — particularly the 1998 version co-directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall and featuring Alan Cumming as The Emcee — and with every iteration, the show poses questions about what it means to be complicit when evil is on the rise.
“Cabaret” may be set in 1930, but it is no historical museum piece, according to Director (and Shakespeare Theatre Associate Artistic Director) Alan Paul.
“It is modern. It is about complicity, and what happens when citizens of 1930s Berlin turn a blind eye to the rise of the Nazis,” Paul said. “It has huge political overtones now as we think about what it means to be a citizen in this incredibly partisan and political moment.”
It is also a tour de force, with Olney’s cast and ensemble putting forward the stories of ex-pats Cliff Bradshaw and Sally Bowles (Gregory Maheu and Alexandra Silber), Berliners like Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (Donna Migliaccio and Mitchell Hébert), the decadent dancers of the Kit Kat Klub and the enigmatic Emcee (Mason Alexander Park), who morally and spiritually degenerates before the audience’s eyes.
For Park, performing at Olney is a sort of homecoming. Born in Virginia, although his family moved around the country for his dad’s job, he’s happy to be back — just as he was last year, when he rolled into the Kennedy Center in the national tour of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
An old soul, despite being only 24, Park’s life has been so vivid and big that playing the iconic role of The Emcee in “Cabaret” — made famous by Joel Gray on Broadway and in the film, and by Alan Cumming in spectacular revivals — seems to be something he takes in stride.
A philanthropist since age 6 — he raised so much money in an elementary school fundraiser that media attention and speaking engagements popped up — he went from his first professional musical in North Carolina to a gig as a teen TV actor in Los Angeles, appearing on Nickelodeon’s “iCarly,” and representing Los Angeles at the National High School Musical Awards. That led him to Pittsburgh, and a bachelor of fine arts degree in musical theatre from Park Point University, where he started his own theatre company before jumping into “Hedwig” shortly after graduation.
He’s nothing short of a revelation in “Cabaret,” as is his co-star Alexandra Silber. The character she plays in “Cabaret,” Sally Bowles, may be a nightclub performer with a shady past, but Silber is a Renaissance woman. A novel-writing Grammy nominee who catapulted into the West End at 21, playing Laura Fairlie in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Woman in White,” Silber grew up dancing outside Detroit, Michigan — immersed in arts activities that helped keep her occupied while her dad battled cancer.
Silber attended Interlochen Center for the Arts, and decided to study abroad when she fell in love with The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. “I decided to go on a great adventure,” she said, noting that her father’s illness — he died when she was 18 — was a catalyst for her in terms of living life to its fullest. “And the Royal Conservatoire turned out to be the perfect place for me; they took me in, and I really felt at home there.”
She learned to “speak English” there, too: the “received pronunciation” training (known as RP) gave Silber a BBC-approved British accent that she put to use even before playing Sally Bowles. Silver received her bachelor’s degree in acting just days before starting her professional career — which took her from Lloyd Webber to playing Hodel in “Fiddler on the Roof” to the lead in “Carousel” at London’s Savoy Theatre to the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall and finally back to the U.S., recreating her Julie Jordan role in Los Angeles’ Reprise Theater Company’s revival of “Carousel.”
She came to the metropolitan area to play opposite Tyne Daly in Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” at the Kennedy Center, bounced up to Broadway and through a handful of regional roles, before heading back to Broadway to play Tzeitel in the Tony-nominated Bart Sher revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” a role that intensified her commitment to her Jewish heritage (a descendant of Russian “Pale of Settlement” Jews, she’s preparing for an adult bat mitzvah) and inspired her novel, “After Anatevka.”
“I have been so fortunate to play Tevye’s two oldest daughters in the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ on both sides of the Atlantic,” Silber said. “When I played Hodel in London, I had recently lost my own ‘Papa’ to a long battle with cancer.
“Each time as Hodel said ‘goodbye,’ so did I.”
Playing the enigmatic Sally Bowles — a character Silber sees as a woman who has fabricated her story and muddled her sense of self — is more complicated. Working with Paul, her frequent collaborator, Silber found a place for Bowles amid the glitz and debauchery of Weimar Berlin, where the rise of Nazism comes “as a complete surprise” to people who should have seen it coming.
“‘Cabaret’ details the humanity — or lack thereof — of Berliners at the dawn of Nazi Germany,” she said, noting that alongside the singing and dancing is a story of “struggling Germans who long for a better country, and are torn apart by a struggling economy, floods of immigrants, nationalistic pride and an utterly divided political climate. Sound familiar?”
At the end of the day, Olney’s production of “Cabaret” asks some big questions. “What does it mean to ‘do nothing?’” queried Silber. “What does it cost us all?”
“Cabaret” runs through Oct. 6 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and Wednesdays, Sept.18 and Oct. 2. Tickets begin at $42, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.