Cliff Bradshaw (Nate Houran) has just interrupted his love interest, Sally Bowles (Jay Eddy), canoodling with another man. She storms offstage and Cliff moves to follow her. He’s stopped by Ernst (Jeremy Funke), who wants to make a deal with him. Cliff wants no part of it. Ernst is a little confused, but not thrown off his game.
“I know you need the money,” he says, “so it must be something else. Ah — that Jew at the party?”
That’s when Cliff hits Ernst, landing a punch right in his stomach.
It’s a move he regrets, as the emcee at the Kit Kat Club (Sammi Katz) comes up behind him to catch his arm, pinning him. Ernst relishes his moment, then hits Cliff, hard. Hits him again, harder. The emcee takes her turn, brutally, casually. Then turns to the microphone at the front of the stage, addresses the crowd with a wry grin, as if this whole thing has really just been a performance all along.
“Thank you,” she says, with a knowing sneer.
It’s one of many curdling moments in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s wrenching Cabaret, a musical that mixes together questions about sexuality and fascism as it plunges into the goings-on at a decadent and seedy cabaret, the Kit Kat Club, located in Berlin during the rise of the Nazi party.
The upcoming production of Cabaret — which runs at Lyric Hall June 22 to July 15 — marks the debut of a new theater company in town: the Harpers, led by co-artistic directors Jay Eddy and Sam Plattus. Dedicating to mixing fine and folk art, the Harpers take on Cabaret has the piano and a small drum kit on stage, a musical ensemble that mixes ukuleles and violins, kazoos and tenor guitars. The cast of 20 is boiled down to 8 actors who take on multiple roles and musical duties. Unabashedly socially conscious, the Harpers are looking to set deep roots in the New Haven community.
Though in doing so, Plattus is re-establishing the roots he already has.
Plattus grew up in Westville, his mother a hematologist at Yale-New Haven, his father an architecture professor at Yale. He left to go to college at Bowdoin, in Brunswick, Me., and lived in New York City for four years after that. But “New Haven has always felt like home to me,” Plattus said. “I was always coming back.”
“When we were friends in college, he said, ‘I’m going to start my theater company in New Haven, and you’re going to work with me,’” Eddy said. She was planning on going to London, which she did, earning a masters degree at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She came back to the United States and to New York. She and Plattus began making theater together. They put on the original musical Holler: An Appalachian Tragedy at Lyric Hall in 2014. The year 2015 found them at the New York Fringe Festival with The Boys Are Angry. Beached: An Island Tragedy got them to the PortFringe Theatre Festival in Portland, Me. in 2016.
Six months ago, Eddy and Plattus got married and wanted to leave New York City. “We were looking for a city that felt smaller and more personal, but still artistically vibrant.” New Haven felt right — not only because of Plattus’s roots here, but because of the current arts scene and its proximity to New York and Boston, and thus to actors they’d developed relationships with over the years.
But why start their own theater company?
“When you’re a theater maker, there is a certain amount of work you put in figuring out who makes the kind of work you want to make,” Plattus said.
Eddy agreed. “The work we want to make is very specific,” she said. “Not a lot of companies do it.” By it she meant folk opera, “an inherently socially conscious form of theater, community driven and community created. Which is a big part of what we want to do.” Think perhaps Yiddish theater, though there are examples all over the world.
“We want to make art that belongs in and speaks to the community it lives in,” Eddy added.
The Harpers are already planning to do four shows a year, many of them world premieres. They’ll do Twelfth Night in the winter, appropriately enough, just after Christmas. But their aesthetic and social values are already inherent in their production of the Kander and Ebb classic.
“We always use a mix of classically trained singers and people who would think of themselves as non-singers, or shower singers, or social singers,” Eddy said. The same approach applies to the music. Many in the cast are trained and experienced musicians, playing alongside people who are learning to play for this production.
One of those is veteran theater actor, director, and professor Raphael Massie, who directed Romeo and Juliet for Elm Shakespeare last summer. He’s playing Herr Schultz in the Harpers production of Cabaret. “He’s an incredibly talented actor, as proficient with Shakespeare as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Eddy said. Yet he downplayed his musical abilities.
“You guys know that I’m not a singer,” Plattus recalled him saying.
That turned out not to be entirely true. “It took very little work” to get him up to speed, Eddy said.
Plattus and Eddy are excited to bring Cabaret to Lyric Hall — “the perfect marriage of space and show,” Plattus said. And “the cultural relevance of Cabaret is unfortunately very present right now.”
Fortunately, however, Cabaret is also a lot of fun, maybe no more so than with Eddy takes the stage as Bowles to sing the show’s title song. She plays the defiantly independent Sally Bowles with predatory glee, as a woman who has no interest in joining the repressive and soon to be genocidal regime gathering force around her. If she’s going down, she’s going down singing. She makes us want to go with her.
Cabaret runs at Lyric Hall, 827 Whalley Ave., June 22 to July 15. Click here for tickets and more information.