“You’ve never seen a production like this,” says Dr. Frank X. Ford, Santa Monica Civic Light Opera artistic director. He says he doesn’t mean merely this play but rather any theatrical production — this one breaks the rules of conventional theater. Ford sounds neither brassy nor overconfident. He sounds thoughtful.
The CLO presents “Cabaret,” opening July 29 at Santa Monica High School. Ford rates this version PG-13. “You can’t do it in a nice way. It’s not a nice play. But it can have some very powerful moments.”
He selected the play, he says, “because I’ve always felt every production I’ve ever seen of it missed the essence of the play.
“The book and music don’t form a traditional Broadway musical,” he notes. “They don’t come together that effectively. People try to solve it by attaching some thematic elements to the play instead of attacking the central problem, which is, how do you make a melodrama and a Brechtian musical come together.”
Ford discusses the moral issues raised by the work. “I have a very strong moral slant on everything I do. I’ve only done three violent plays in my life — and one of them was ‘Hamlet.'” He also quotes Jefferson: “The only thing necessary for tyranny to prevail is if enough good people do nothing.” Ford says Cabaret’s demonic emcee (the multitalented Matt Walker) will manipulate reality. “So the audience is not sure the actors are actors. The only reality is the cabaret.”
Ford hopes the audience will make its own interpretive decisions. He recalls Alfred Hitchcock, speaking at USC, saying, “I’m not as creative as you give me credit for being,” and noting it was the audiences who derived the meaning from the films. Says Ford, “Trust the tale, not the teller. Let the play speak for itself.” He hopes the audience will realize that the work “rubs your nose in the corruption that you’re perfectly happy to watch.” Nothing smarmy or vulgar, promises Ford. “It will put some new colors in your paintbox as far as theater is concerned. But always to a point.”
Cabaret appears in the Humanities Center Theatre while historic Barnum Hall undergoes restoration to its Art Deco style. “We’re doing this to keep people conscious of Barnum Hall,” says Ford.
Every cast member but one is a Santa Monica High School alumnus or student, classes of 1986-1999, including Malibuites Colleen Ford and Tara Morrow.
Ford, 16, performed in the CLO’s first production, “Annie,” in which she portrayed the smallest orphan. Her mother knew since Ford was in diapers, climbing atop tables to dance to Tina Turner, that her daughter was destined for a life in theater. “My first role ever was the scarecrow in Malibu Community Center’s theater,” she recounts. The Paradise Cove resident decided to attend SMHS for its theater department and the opportunity to work with Frank Ford. As a freshman, she played Peter Pan, as a sophomore, she played Rosie in “Bye Bye Birdie.” She also appeared in the CLO’s “My Fair Lady.” “And I’ve played Annie three times.” As for Cabaret, she says, “They’re going to walk out of this thinking. Even being in it, it’s a difficult play to understand.”
Morrow grew up in Malibu and attended Pepperdine (class of ’84), where her family has taught. She participated in Pepperdine’s opera company, singing in “Die Zauberflte” and “Cosi fan Tutti,” and hosted Songfest. Her husband is the university’s assistant director of admissions. Of preparing for Cabaret, she says, “We’re thinking all the time.” She expects the production to provide a powerful audience experience. “I told my friends they can’t turn their brains off when they come to see this,” she says.
Morrow and Ford share character Frulein Schneider. “We’ve established that she is everywoman,” says Morrow. Otherwise, notes their director, each actor builds his or her own subtext for their characters.
The two actors found ways around the recent landslides. Ford drove through the Valley to attend rehearsals. Morrow drove Fernwood and got carsick. They stayed in Santa Monica for three nights of slumber parties. Says Morrow, “It’s been really fun working with the alums — because I’ve done something [prior productions] with each member of the cast.”
Morrow babysat a young Colleen Ford. “We have the pictures to prove it,” says Ford.
The production staff includes the summer school theater students who are interested in learning about technical theater production.
“Cabaret” appears July 29 – Aug. 16 at Santa Monica High School’s Humanities Center Theatre; alternating with “Clown’s Labours Lost,” at the school’s Greek Theatre in August. Call 458-5939 for schedule and tickets.