BOOM! actors 50 and older say ‘Willkommen’ with musical ‘Cabaret’ – Akron Beacon Journal

For the older adult cast of “Cabaret” at the Akron Civic Theatre, life is beautiful.
That’s because they’re back to performing, some after decades of not doing theater, in a theater company created just for them — BOOM! Theatre.
“Cabaret” is the launch pad for the the Civic’s new theater company, which features actors ages 50 and up who are baby boomers or Gen Xers.
BOOM! will stage musicals, comedies and dramas with older adult casts and creative teams, with the goal of creating a creative and social outlet for this age group. Producer Val Renner said no other theater company in the area is focused on a company with this older adult demographic.
To top things off, it’s all happening on the Civic’s slick new Knight Stage, which seats 200 and offers a black box theater-type experience.
In “Cabaret,” the “life is beautiful” reference comes from the ironically famous introduction the flamboyant Emcee makes at the beginning of the show at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin in the tune “Willkommen (Welcome).”
“Leave your troubles outside! So, life is disappointing? Forget it! We have no troubles in here. Here, life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful … Even the orchestra is beautiful!” actor Philip Formes rehearsed as the Emcee early this month in the show’s opening number on the Knight Stage.
The ironic thing is that the Kit Kat Klub is a seedy cabaret, a place of decadent celebration in 1929-30 as the Nazis are gaining power. The club itself becomes a metaphor for the sinister, looming rise of the German Reich during a time of great political change in late Weimar Germany.
The show is an adult musical for mature performers. The Civic does not recommend “Cabaret” for children 16 or younger..
The BOOM! cast, which hails from throughout Northeast Ohio, features actors from diverse levels of experience, from high school to professional theater backgrounds. They range from their 50s to the senior cast member, 73-year-old Alan Klesh of Akron, who plays fruit vendor Herr Schultz.
Director Sharon Alberson, 65, said the cast has really stepped up to the plate, including learning German accents for some roles. She chose the 1966 Kander and Ebb musical as the first BOOM! show because it’s a serious drama with great music that is topical today.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s in Germany, the Communist, Socialist and Nazi parties were vying for power. With all the political factions, it was a time of great tension and uncertainty.
“People didn’t know who they could talk to” in such a tense political climate, Alberson said. “I think that’s very much what we’re going through today.” 
For this piece set in the pre-Nazi era, actors have done their homework. Tina Davis of Gates Mills, 55, plays the complicated role of Sally Bowles, a has-been English cabaret performer. Davis read some of the musical’s source material, John Van Druten’s play “I Am a Camera,” to help her understand her flawed character. (The play is adapted from the semi-autobiographical 1939 novel “Goodbye to Berlin” by Christopher Isherwood.) 
“Reading that really helped me see her in a different way than some of the things that I’ve watched on video” from Broadway revivals, Davis said.
Davis, who has never seen “Cabaret” live on stage or the famous 1972 film starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, sees Sally as ageless.
“I Am a Camera” indicates that Sally is 19 or 20 years old. Portraying her as a more mature actress is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Davis said.
“I think she’s a type of person that’s a very narcissistic person who keeps her head in the sand and kind of lives this wild-child life,” the Gen Xer said of Sally. “It’s fun playing a flawed person.”
Playing Sally has long been on Davis’ bucket list. The actress, who grew up in Solon and did theater performance for most of her life, took 15 years off while she was raising her two children.
“It’s a second chance to play some of the roles that may have passed me by that I’m still capable of playing,” Davis said of the BOOM! Theater opportunity. “If you are good enough to play the role and you can handle it, then you have an opportunity to cast in the part.”
Choreographer Brian Murphy has given Davis the freedom to create some of her own dance moves that he’ll finesse in numbers such as the flirty, suggestive “Don’t Tell Mama.” In this story, Sally is the headliner with the Kit Kat Girls.
That makes Davis — a former cheerleader whose favorite part of that was dance — happy. 
“It’s more freedom to do what naturally comes to me,” she said.
Davis, who previously performed in San Francisco before moving back to Northeast Ohio in 2004, has performed locally everywhere from Western Reserve Playhouse in Bath to the Cleveland Play House. 
Formes, 61, is a Cuyahoga Falls resident who moved to the area in 2017 after spending a number of years in New Orleans. Originally from Cincinnati, he’s a professional singer, actor and musician whose background includes singing with the New Orleans Opera and playing clarinet and saxophone professionally. 
“When I heard about the audition, frankly, I didn’t really know that much about ‘Cabaret’ in terms of the roles,” he said. “When I heard it was for people over 50, I thought, ‘Well that’s so great, because my whole life has been music.’
“So many people think that after 50, there isn’t anything for them to do, which is ridiculous,” he said. 
“This is a great awakening” from the pandemic,” Formes said. “People need to come out of the woodwork and enjoy entertainment and life again.”
“It just really has enlivened and invigorated my soul to be back and performing again,” said Formes, whose last show was “Titanic” at the Players Guild in Canton.
He said “Cabaret,” set in the German era of pre-Nazism, features characters who are in conflict with themselves about their personal beliefs, sexuality or politics.
“The Emcee, I see him as sort of more or less a devil’s advocate,” he said. “I hope to portray him as sort of an androgynous Nazi sympathizer.”
Tracee McClain of Akron, 58, is happy to return to the stage with “Cabaret.” The performer previously worked professionally as an actress and singer in San Diego, where she had an agent and was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG/AFTRA). After returning to Akron in 1994, she put performing on the back burner as she raised her three kids.
Now an empty nester, she hadn’t performed for 27 years when she saw the audition notice for “Cabaret” that called for a cast 50 or older.
“Hey, that’s me,” she told herself. “It was a chance for me to get back to acting.”
“I had to brush the rust off my pipes” for the singing audition, said McClain, who plays Kit Kat Girl Texas and is featured in the dark, provocative song and dance “Two Ladies.”
James Donaldson of Akron, 58, sees his return to the theater as a bright spot after suffering from health issues in recent years. The retired paramedic, who performed in “Cabaret” 40 years ago as a senior at Central-Hower High School, now plays Max the nightclub owner and a customs agent.
When he saw the Civic audition notice on social media, he asked high school friends from his old performing arts program if they were up for an encore performance.
“I laughed about it to my wife, and she said, ‘What are you waiting for? Fill the damn paperwork out,’ ” Donaldson said.
He suffered a shattered foot in 2016, followed by a badly broken leg, which required multiple surgeries and ultimately led to amputation of his right leg in November. Donaldson now wears a prosthetic leg.
“I was tired of being stuck at home” during the pandemic, said Donaldson who decided that auditioning for “Cabaret” was worth a try.
“If nothing else, I got to stand on the main stage of the Civic and sing ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me,’ ” Donaldson said of his audition song. 
The performer, who uses a cane, said getting up the steps of the Knight Stage is a bit difficult and he doesn’t dance in the show. But Donaldson dismisses the idea that his participating in the show is inspiring.
“I’m not inspiring anybody. I have a life to live,” said the performer, who was active as business manager and drum sergeant with the Akron and District Pipe Band before the pandemic. “I don’t like to just sit around.”
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or [email protected]
Musical: “Cabaret” by BOOM! Theater
Where: Knight Stage at the Akron Civic Theatre, 182 S. Main St., Akron
When: Sept. 24 through Oct. 9, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Onstage: Tina Davis, Phil Formes, John Herhold, Harry Cool, Rebecca Armstrong, Shelia Baronwright, Alan Klesh, Tim Fuller, James Donaldson, Laurie Keckler, Paul Kroeger, Kathy Keenan, Tracee McClain, Shareen Robinson
Offstage: John Kander, music, Fred Ebb, lyrics; Joe Masteroff, book; based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin;” Sharon Alberson, director/musical director; Brian Murphy, choreographer; Lisa Brosovich, lighting designer/set designer; Kate Lawson, costume designer; Annette Malorni, stage manager 
Cost: $20
Information: 330-253-2488, www.akroncivic.com or ticketmaster.com

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