Crying Through Cabaret

Posted inCreative Voices

It was not unexpected, to those who know me, that I would sob some big ugly mom tears through the entirety of Thalia’s senior drama performance as The Emcee in Cabaret.

After four years at a performing arts high school, this was actually the first time I was able to see her perform live there. Covid and related complications turned stage productions into video; scene work was performed in class, parent-free; student-written one act plays were presented as muffled, mask-covered performances that we streamed at home, as we sat around the TV wondering what could have been.

Despite the best intentions and impressive creativity of all involved, there is simply no substitute for live theater.

So this past weekend, it all came together: Four years of rigorous training, a lengthy audition process and seven months of near-daily rehearsals later, and the sold-out audience was seated in in a black box theater miraculously transformed into the Kit Kat Club.

It was no coincidence that her incredible director, Dr. Jamie Cacciola-Price, chose this show, at this time.

As he wrote in his program notes:

I cannot see theater from a non-political lens, as the world we live in requires a constant awareness of the human condition, specifically focusing on those whose stories are not being told, suppressed, or censored. The best of what theatre can do as an art form is to start a conversation — a dialogue; it can challenge one’s thinking and promote empathy. In Act II of Cabraret, Sally asks Cliff: “Politics? But what has the got to do with us?” Cliff responds: “Don’t you see? If you’re not against it — you’re for it.”

He also added:

If I were directing this production in Florida, I would likely be fired for this director’s note you are currently reading.

I’m glad we were not in Florida because (among other reasons) something incredibly profound happened this weekend.

Program cover art by…Thalia Gerloff!

The lights came down, the first notes of Willkommen streamed through the speakers and…there she was. The Emcee. Willkommen-ing us all with bawdy puns and double entendres, commanding us to leave our troubles outside.

Here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Everyone is beautiful!

If you know the show — or your history — you know that indeed, life in 1930s Berlin didn’t remain beautiful for long.

In the final scene, the entirety of the Kit Kat Club dancers surrounded the audience on four sides, dressed in striped pajamas while black and white projections of German train cars moved slowly behind them. I could not look directly at any of their faces.

Then, in the last seconds of the show, The Emcee stood at the center of the round stage. Horrified. Devastated. Terrified.

Her eyes pleaded with the audience as she slowly removed her overcoat: see this. Look at me. Look what is happening here. Don’t turn away. So many emotions conveyed in one single expression, made more dramatic by the silence in the room.

Her coat fell to the ground, revealing the yellow felt star and pink felt star that had been sewn onto her own pajamas.

The theater went dark.

So yes. I cried.

But not for the reasons I had expected.

This was the first time I cried not because I was so damn proud of my daughter (which, of course I was) but because I didn’t see my daughter at all.

I saw The Emcee. Not Joel Grey’s Emcee or Alan Cummings’s Emcee or Neil Patrick Harris’s Emcee. I saw Thalia Gerloff’s Emcee. I saw a character I had grown to love and to empathize with for the past 150 minutes. Her pain was my pain. Her fear was my fear. Her story was my story.

Look what is happening here.

The students were all so wildly talented, they helped me feel Sally’s pain. Cliff’s pain. Herr Schultz’s pain. And the pain of the Jewish people, the queer people, the trans people…all the alienated and marginalized people they stood in for.

Those whose stories are suppressed or censored.

Theater moves us. Theater gives us understanding. Theater opens hearts and minds. Theater changes us. Theater heals.

Next week, graduation.

Soon after, college. And I couldn’t be more thrilled that Thalia will continue pursuing theater.

The world needs accountants and lawyers, coders and train conductors, baristas and cardiac surgeons, dressmakers, nurse practitioners, data scientists, wind turbine service technicians.

The world also needs actors. Directors. Playwrights. Improv groups. Sketch comedians. Satirists. Comedy writers. Arts educators.

The world needs art.

Liz Gumbinner is a Brooklyn-based writer, award-winning ad agency creative director, and OG mom blogger who was called “funny some of the time” by an enthusiastic anonymous commenter. This was originally posted on her Substack “I’m Walking Here!,” where she covers culture, media, politics, and parenting.

Photos courtesy of the author.