URBANA — When Latrelle Bright, Julie Gunn and Elliot Emadian came together last summer to pick out the top performers from their three departments at the University of Illinois — theater, lyric theater and dance — they knew there would be logistical challenges to bringing students and faculty from different backgrounds together for “Cabaret,” which debuts tonight and wraps up next weekend in Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
Dancers are used to shorter rehearsals over longer time periods. The actors aren’t necessarily used to dancing and singing like they do in “Cabaret.” And musicians, particularly in the band, aren’t necessarily used to the pageantry associated with a show that revolves around a tawdry nightclub.
But with those complications came an upside.
“We learn a lot about each other’s ways of working, and we bring the best that we each have to things,” said Gunn, who plays the piano in the show. “We’ve had lots of technical rehearsals. We’ve just been able to up everything on all levels.”
A show of this scale isn’t common at the UI. These three departments haven’t come together at this level in 12 years. But as part of Krannert’s multiyear 50th anniversary celebration, the schools decided to create something larger than they each could produce on their own.
“Cabaret,” choreographer Elliot Emadian said, proved to be a perfect fit for the combination of the three schools because it has a show within a show. The band, led by Gunn on piano, dresses and acts as if they’re in the 1930’s Berlin nightclub at all times, just like the dancers and the emcee, who doubles as a narrator. The character of Sally Bowles, played by Anna Benoit, goes back and forth between acting in a scene and acting as a cabaret dancer.
“There are all three components happening inside Cabaret,” Emadian said. “There’s dance and theater and music, so kind of on a superficial level, it works out really nicely. But I think one of the exciting things about Cabaret in particular is the way those three things interact. The dances both exist inside a performance world, inside of the Cabaret and also exist in conversation with the world around them. The same with the music and the same with acting, too, where the acting isn’t happening within the context of the scene but it’s happening in the context of the dances or happening in the context of the scene. So it’s really, the interesting bleeding and blending of the different worlds happening all the time.”
The process of putting the play together began last summer, when the three schools began the process of picking some of their best and brightest. While the roles mainly stick to the roles that align with their field of study, whether it’s acting, singing or dancing, that wasn’t necessarily the case with every actor.
“We were really open to that dancer who could sing, who could possibly be the lead, or that actor who could dance and be one of the Kit Kats,” said Bright, the show’s stage director. “And there were hidden talents.
“People came to this Sin City of Berlin for a variety of reasons: stardom, fame, sexual freedom,” she added. “And so with all of that over the summer, I got a really good sense of what we were looking for, people who were open and free, and I would say a lot of the students in all three departments were that.”
While there were certainly difficulties with taking actors, dancers and musicians out of their comfort zones, the positives that came from the combination of talents far outweighed them.
“Artistically, it’s been a lot less challenging,” Emadian said, “but I think more exciting to kind of collaborate and learn how music can kind of really inform the way that you learn and understand the way that you dance, or learning that blocking in a scene may be related to choreography, or the way that incorporating notes can be kind of a universal tactic. So it’s been an adventure, but certainly really exciting.”