Much like Sally Bowles herself, Marcia Milgrom Dodge is a true woman of the world”¦at least in the geographical sense. The renowned director/choreographer, who received a Tony nomination last year for her direction of the Ragtime revival, traverses the globe, adding more and more credits to her already long and distinguished resume. Next month she has been invited to Denmark, where she will direct composer George Stiles’ musical adaptation of The Three Musketeers. At the moment, Dodge can be found in Los Angeles, where she’s more holding onto her hat than hanging it, as she helms Reprise’s upcoming production of Cabaret.
Having also directed last year’s production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Dodge is no stranger to Reprise’s brief rehearsal process. “It’s madness. It’s a test of our craft and our mettle. But it’s also exciting, and it always gets done. It’s not my favorite way to work, but being given the opportunity to work on Cabaret and bring my own particular ideas to the storytelling of it, that’s an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. They told me that I had two and a half weeks to do it and I said “˜okay, let’s do it’. Luckily I have an extraordinary cast and designers””everybody’s working at the top of their game. We all just have to roll up our sleeves, check our egos at the door, and hit the ground running.”
When asked what the elements of her particular style are that she intends to bring to the production, Dodge says she always wants her work to come from a place that feels natural and inherent to the piece””even if that means pulling from different variations of the show. “The big idea that I had for this production, is that I wanted to revisit the original script. While doing my research, I decided not to use the most recent revival script, but instead use the revival from 1987, which was done under the leadership of Harold Prince. I did incorporate, with permission from John Kander, one of the songs from the film. We didn’t want to leave out “˜Maybe This Time,’ because it’s such a powerful song for Sally, but I wanted to interpolate it in a scene that doesn’t happen in the Kit Kat Klub. I’m very excited about that. You might say that in some manner, I was given permission to interpolate one of the songs from the film in my own way. I wasn’t restricted by where it had to go or when it had to be placed.”
One of the key elements to instilling that native quality to her work is in the painstaking research that she’s done on the actual German “kabaret” scene.Â Using this in-depth attention to detail, Dodge intends to create an atmosphere that is both aesthetically and psychologically immersive. “It’s very important to me to tell this story in the same way that I feel it happened in Germany. Based on my research, it seems that there was a slow unfolding, an insidious way in which the Nazis infiltrated the psyches of the German people. So I wanted to translate that into the production design. There’ll be moments with the scenic elements where you may look at something and think it’s a design, and then look at it again and it may take on another shape that’s a little more threatening.
“I was also very inspired by the German expressionist paintings of the period, so the set is really going to incorporate the artwork of the painter George Grosz. Our set is inspired by his colors and by his depiction of German life during the Weimar Republic period of German history. At the same time, we also wanted to create an inviting, welcoming environment. So we’re putting some audience members up on the stage in café tables. I don’t know if they’ve ever done that at Reprise. It’s a tricky space, but we really wanted to bring the audience onstage and allow an interaction with the performers.”
A formidable choreographer in her own right, Dodge tackles the distinctive dance style associated with Cabaret by coming at it from a place of respect and focusing on building her own style from grass roots. Â “One of the biggest challenges for me, as the choreographer, is that because the film has become so iconic, people associate Cabaret with Bob Fosse. I’m too young to have seen the original production, but I did see the revival, and it was all based on Ron Field’s original choreography. Ron was a very prominent director/choreographer who worked on Broadway in the ’60s and ’70s. He died very young, surprisingly. When I was doing my homework, I learned that he died at the age of 55. He probably had many more dances in him. I was very much as influenced by Ron, as I was by Fosse, so what I decided to do was kind of put them in the drawer, and really launch the choreography vocabulary from authentic dances of the day. We’re looking at the Charleston, Shimmy, Lindy, and things like that. So I’m going to build the choreography from scratch, like I do with all of the shows that I work on, taking my predecessors’ genius and respecting it without copying it. It’s really important for me that I find my own vocabulary for the show and for the characters.”
Dodge’s organic sensibilities were especially taken into consideration when it came to casting the parts of her two leads — Sally Bowles and the Emcee, arguably two of the most recognizable characters in musical theater. “I was looking for someone who felt authentic to the Christopher Isherwood character [from the original book], not someone who seemed like she was Liza Minnelli or Natasha Richardson. I tried to find what I felt was uniquely “˜Sally Bowles’. Lisa O’Hare walked in and just knocked my socks off. It doesn’t hurt that she’s English, so she captures Sally’s accent, dialect, and persona very naturally. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s beautiful, slim-hipped and gorgeous, yet slightly androgynous, which I thought was a really interesting physicality for Sally.
“Before I saw Lisa, I had done some homework on the chanteuses and women who were performers in the cabaret during that time. Marlene Dietrich, as we all know, came from that world. But there was also another little-known performer in the day called Margo Lion, who was a German chanteuse. I sent pictures of her to my costume designer, Kate Bergh, and told her that this would be a great look for Sally. When Lisa O’Hare walked into the room, it was like Margo Lion had shown up. It was really kind of chilling and exciting that we had someone who truly evoked an authentic singer from the time.”
Another exciting element to casting O’Hare in the part, according to Dodge, was the thrill of casting her against type. Recently,Â O’Hare has made quite the name for herself among Los Angeles audiences as the quintessential ingénue. Angelenos may recognize her from her turn as the “fair lady” Eliza Doolittle at the Ahmanson in 2008, and Reprise fans will remember her in the title role of Gigi this past spring. In Cabaret, however, Dodge assures us that we are going to see and hear a different side of O’Hare.Â “Sally is a very dark and complex woman, which may come as a surprise to fans who have come to expect a certain kind of performance from Lisa. Another exciting thing about her is that she’s known for singing very legit soprano, so this is a fun challenge for her as a singer and performer to dig into her chest voice and really belt. She’s charting new territory here.”
As for the Kit Kat Club’s Master of Ceremonies, Dodge believes she has truly found the perfect fit in Bryce Ryness, whom audiences may recognize from his Drama Desk-nominated performance as “Woof” in the Tony-winning revival of Hair, or most recently as the disillusioned poet Maffio in the Pasadena Playhouse’s production of Dangerous Beauty. “Bryce Ryness is a born ringmaster. I found him to be so compelling, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He makes really interesting choices, he’s sexy, he’s going to appeal to women and men, humans and animals [Laughs]. He’s just a very charismatic, warm, surprising, complicated young man. Having him in this show really opened up the opportunities for really inventing a big arc for the Emcee and a real journey for him.”
When asked to comment on Reprise’s decision to do a production of Cabaret“”a show that audiences may find a departure from Reprise’s lighter, vintage musical fare””Dodge is quick to applaud the company for taking a risk that has very topical resonances. “I think the idea of Reprise using this show as part of their programming is really insightful, because look at the times we’re living in. Cabaret was brave and bold for its time in 1966. It opened on Broadway during the Vietnam War. Using another war and another dictator to represent our history in the face of our future was incredibly daring, and I think of this play as a cautionary tale. It’s certainly not a show that is under-produced. It’s probably made all of its original creative team quite wealthy. It’s not an under-appreciated show, but what we’re going to do hopefully is shine a light on it in a time where we need to be reminded that crazy people are out there trying to take over and run countries. For me, I think it’s a little bit challenging and daunting to tackle this material in the climate that we’re living in right now. I’m excited about it, and I’m ready for this challenge.
“Of course, I also never lose sight of the fact that this show has one of the greatest Broadway scores ever written and has the ability to entertain in a way that you may not think you’re being preached to or being given a heavy message. It’s done in a very satirical manner, but it’s definitely very disturbing at times. We’re all very aware that we’re working on something that has power in today’s world.”
Cabaret, Reprise at Freud Playhouse, UCLA, near Hilgard and Sunset. Sept. 13-25. Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun at 2 pm and 7 pm. 310-825-2101. www.reprise.org.
***All Cabaret production photos by Ed Krieger