Transforming a tent into the Kit Kat Club
If You Go…
What: ‘Cabaret,’ presented by Theatre Aspen
Where: Hurst Theatre, Rio Grande Park
When: Friday, June 26, 7:30 p.m. through Aug. 15
Tickets and more info: www.theatreaspen.org
Theatre Aspen has transformed the Hurst Theatre in Rio Grande Park into the infamous Kit Kat Club, in all its faded and decadent glory, for its summer production of “Cabaret.”
The musical, based on the popular 1998 Broadway production that was restaged last year in New York, opens Friday night in the intimate tent theater, starring Jon Peterson as The Emcee (reprising his role from a Northport, N.Y. staging) and Kirsten Wyatt as performer Sally Bowles (her recent Broadway credits include “A Christmas Story,” “Annie” and “Grease”).
The show’s set and lighting designer, Paul Black, sought to use the tent’s tight quarters as an advantage for “Cabaret,” creating an immersive audience experience inside the pre-World War Two Berlin nightclub.
“The audience knows when they walk in that they’re in the Kit Kat Club,” Black said.
He took out the first row of seats in the tent and replaced them with cafe tables – maroon tablecloths laid across them, candlestick phones placed atop them (the Christopher Isherwood book on which “Cabaret” is based detailed how Kit Kat revelers would phone one another table-to-table). So when The Emcee sings “Your table’s waiting” during the show’s legendary title number, you may actually have a table.
About 100 chaser lights line the club’s proscenium (and a proscenium-within-a-proscenium) on the two-story set, with the Kit Kat’s band seated on the second floor. A complex lighting scheme lends a lurid jolt to the club’s hedonistic vibe and performances.
As he created the club’s interior, Black imagined that it would have been nice around 1890 but been beaten down by the late 1920s when “Cabaret” is set.
“That club should feel like it’s been there with people smoking in it for 40 years,” Black said.
To that end, he festooned the set in gold leaf and paint, then took dirt and black paint to it. He smudged. He pealed. The club’s wood floor, on which the Kit Kat’s debauched denizens and creepy emcee perform, Black imagined, would have been painted black at some point, but then neglected over the decades – so he painted and pummeled it until it took on the look worn hardwood and scuffed black paint.
“We had to make it nice first, then age it to give it the right feel,” he said.
The cozy, 189-seat theater and its thrust stage make for an often intense, sometimes interactive audience experience. Black and “Cabaret” director Mark Martino have skillfully taken advantage of the aisles and the performers’ proximity to the crowd in past Theatre Aspen shows like their up-close and personal “Les Miserables” of two summers ago. “Cabaret” and its use of setting as a character made it an ideal show for the space.
“There’s a connection that happens between the audience and the performers in this space that doesn’t happen elsewhere,” said Black. “‘Cabaret’ is the perfect show to take advantage of that. … It feels like there should be drinks and dancing after the show.”
The unit set for “Cabaret” rests on air casters that roll it off-stage to make way for the rest of the productions in Theatre Aspen’s four-show summer repertory (“Junie B. Jones The Musical” opens Monday, followed by “Peter and the Starcatcher” July 16 and “Other Desert Cities” Aug. 5). Often the tent will transform from the Kit Kat Club late after an evening performance, into the kid-friendly schoolhouse “June B. Jones” set for a morning show, then into the dream world of Peter Pan for “Peter and the Starcatcher” all in the span of 24 hours.
Black and his crew are charged with pulling off that feat.
“Doing the rotating rep is the thing that makes working at Theatre Aspen really frustrating and hard, but also that makes it a joyful and exiting – solving that problem,” said Black.
Backstage at the Hurst was a surreal scene a week before opening night – crewmembers tinkered with lights and wiring, and set upon set were crammed together into a hallucinatory combination of Peter Pan’s Neverland and the cabaret’s naughty nightclub. Last year, during a production of “The Full Monty,” Black and his team put up a storage tent in the lot behind the Hurst to store set pieces when they ran out of room.
“It’s one of the big issues, that it all has to store,” Black said. “It’s a big shell game backstage.”
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