MANSFIELD — Have you heard the parable of the boiling frog?
The story goes, if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, he'll jump right out. But if you put a frog in cold water, and slowly turn up the heat, he'll stay in ... and eventually boil to death. The lesson being, imperceptible change happens one degree at a time until it's too late.
Such is the premise of the musical "Cabaret," opening this weekend at the Renaissance Theatre. Set in 1931 Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power, it focuses on the nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub, and revolves around American writer Cliff Bradshaw and his relationship with English cabaret performer Sally Bowles.
Though the musical is based on a 1939 novel by Christopher Isherwood and a 1951 play by John Van Druten, "Cabaret" has only become more relevant through the years.
"The essence of this musical is that it is meant to be a commentary on political and social issues using the framework of Nazi Germany," said director Ryan Shealy.
"To present Kander & Ebb’s work without commenting on the current pandemic, racial tensions, and resurgence of fascist rhetoric would do a disservice to the spirit of the piece. Using modern design and avant-garde video and projection elements, we hope to bring new life to this classic cautionary tale," he said.
Playing Sally Bowles is Matti-Lynn Chrisman, who last appeared on the Renaissance stage in March for "Rock of Ages," which was later cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first main stage performance for the Renaissance since then.
"Sally lives in her own world where if nothing affects her directly, she's not going to blink her eyes at it or pay attention to it," Chrisman said. "The only thing she cares about is that she has enough money for gin at the end of the night. It's all fun and games and partying because nothing else matters.
"Even when it's brought directly to her front door, she tries to ignore it because at the end of the day she's not Jewish, so she doesn't necessarily fight for the people that need her, which is her biggest fault," Chrisman said.
This kind of complacency is emphasized again and again in "Cabaret," according to Shealy.
"It's about these people who become so complacent they've allowed this thing to fester underneath them, and eventually it breaks through and destroys everyone's lives," he said.
Unfortunately, Shealy said, it's an attitude mirrored in today's society as well. That's why this version of "Cabaret" is intentionally vague on what time period it's taking place in; modern elements like costume design, props and Black Lives Matter images will appear on stage.
"Originally it was going to be a much more faithful adaptation, but as we got into it we realized there's just so much happening in the world that we have to address within the confines of the story. We couldn't not," Shealy said.
The name George Floyd as well as symbols of the Black Lives Matter movement appear on the arm of Leiah Lewis, who plays the narrator of the show. Lewis traveled from Columbus to take part in this telling of "Cabaret."
"Pretty much a facade of everything that Germany is denying, everything that they're complacent on, I'm shining a light on in my role," Lewis said. "It's to show how a lot of the things happening right now in the world are not so different than what was going on back then. It's a very necessary show."
The cast of "Cabaret" also includes Justin Woody, Lori Turner, Scott Smith, Jacob Poiner, Anna Scheurer, Emily Bare, Nykera Gardner, Jenna Krivosh, Elli Nickoli, Jake Sustersic, George Swarn, and Caroline Grace Williams.
Audience members at the Oct. 4 showing of "Cabaret" will also be treated to a live edition of "Shop Talk" on the Renaissance stage immediately following the performance.
Featuring Shop Talk creator Damien Beauford, members of the cast, and moderated by Brittany Schock from Richland Source, this will be a candid discussion of race and prejudice in the context of “Cabaret."
"It's so timely and the honesty of that series, it just struck me that here we are with a show that fits that conversation," Shealy said. "We have actors that want to talk about what is happening in that time period that is mimicking what is happening now, and how we are using this show to make a statement and analyze that."
"Cabaret" will be shown on Oct. 2-3 and 9-10 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 4 and 11 at 2:30 p.m. in the Renaissance Theatre. Tickets for Cabaret are $25 and are available now at RenTickets.org or by contacting the Box Office through their online form or calling 419-522-2726.