Cabaret is a hit. freeFall Theatre’s splendid version of the Kander/Ebb musical sold out every one of its performances in June and July and is re-opening on Aug. 30 for another full month’s run. According to freeFall artistic director Eric Davis, his box office was receiving a hundred calls a day from eager ticket-buyers last month. It seemed everyone had heard: This is a show you don’t dare miss. A reprise was obligatory.
I’m sitting in Temple Terrace’s Café Kili with the actor who, more than anyone else, deserves the credit for the Cabaret singularity. He’s David Mann, 43, whose portrayal of the Emcee at Weimar Germany’s Kit Kat Klub is the amoral center of the show, quite as much as Joel Grey was in the Broadway and film versions. But the comparison ends there: Mann in no way resembles Grey. After all, director Davis starts the show after the end of World War II, when the Emcee returns to the club that was once so vibrant and then “remembers” it back to life.
So it’s Germany’s nightmare years that radiate from his sunken eyes, from his ironic smile and shaved head; it’s a victim’s sarcasm that pours from his lips as he talks and sings to the audience. Though there’s much that’s amusing in Mann’s performance, there’s also melancholy and great fatigue. One can only guess what horrors he’s witnessed. One can only imagine how much he’s lost.
“I think he was in a concentration camp,” says Mann about the Emcee. “I think he was rounded up with other homosexuals, and he made it through somehow. Exactly how, I don’t know. He made it through and it just about broke him.” But Mann didn’t want to just dramatize his character’s exhaustion: he also decided there was something “joyful” in the Emcee’s work. After all, says Mann, the Emcee realizes that as an openly bisexual male, he leads a life that many of his customers only dream about. “Berlin at the time was a haven for and had one of the most thriving gay and lesbian populations of all time. And that would have been a fantastic thing for people like himself. … He noticed, as many people do, who are on the margins of society, that the truth of the matter is there is a whole bunch of other people who would like to come into the same place but they can’t. So they go to shows, oftentimes surreptitiously.”
Complicity: that’s what the Emcee appears to acknowledge with his piercing glances into the audience. Complicity … and permission.
Mann says that playing the Emcee every night is draining, physically and emotionally, and not only because of the dancing he does. “You know, the main person you act with is the audience, that’s the thing.” His job from the very beginning is to get them on his side, he says, to get them interested, to create the atmosphere, and that’s exhausting. “It’s a big jump to do every night.”
To prepare for the role, Mann read parts of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, watched segments of the film (just to learn what audience members might bring with them), listened to a lot of German music from between the wars, and studied German accents. One result: He’s been pleased to hear from some theatergoers who’ve seen various versions of Cabaret that he’s their favorite Emcee.
Amazingly, this is Mann’s first appearance on a local professional stage. The Indiana native came to Tampa eight years ago from the East Coast of Florida to teach acting at USF — he’d been acting and teaching for 15 years before that. Finding that the university’s demands were interfering with his desire to raise a family with his wife, he moved to the Blake High School of the Performing Arts. Teaching at Blake was also time-consuming — “but I discovered that I was just really, really hungry for [an acting job].” The one time he did have available was summer — and so he auditioned for Cabaret. He went into the audition knowing that “nobody knows me,” and he left with a job that should bring him many more offers in the future. That is, if Bay area artistic directors are sharp enough to recognize a great opportunity.
Anyway, Cabaret’s back. If you didn’t see it in its June-July run, take it from me — buy a ticket. Not least for David Mann as the unforgettable Emcee.
And forget everything you know: This portrayal just may be definitive.
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