TheatreWorks Community Players take a walk on the wild side with their latest show, the risqué and dark “Cabaret,” which opens tonight.

At first glance – and through most of the first act, unless you really cue into clues – it seems like a racy show about a nightclub and the people around it, which is eyebrow-raising enough for small town community theater.

However, the second act draws the audience into the environment in which the Nazis rose to power and how people’s complacency, or at least feeling trapped by difficult decisions, let it happen.

The audience is surrounded by stages and action. “I wanted the theater around you,” said director Bryan Dunn. “I wanted compete and total immersion of the audience … everyone is part of the experience.” The set includes boarding house rooms and a nightclub that take you back in time, built and painted by Emma Weatherley.

Barbara Parker, whose college major was costume design, outfitted the characters in 1920s-style clothes. Most she bought online or in thrift stores, but she made the Nazi swastika armbands. Making them was creepy, she said, but she didn’t want to take the chance of being targeted by nefarious groups by ordering them online.

Robbie Hendrix as the over-the-top Master of Ceremonies opens the show, grandly inviting the audience in, as if onlookers were in the cabaret. Then he dramatically introduces the scantily clad Kit Kat Girls — Sandra Elliot, Sarah Kallam, Marcy Martin, Demetra Richardson and Madison Stowe — who perform a sultry song and dance.

The Master of Ceremonies is an intimidating and teasing, larger-than-life presence, the opposite of the clean-cut Disney-hero types Hendrix has played so often in the area.

“This character is unlike any that I’ve portrayed,” but it is one he’s always wanted to do, he said. His strong character really settled on him by the time he had the makeup and costumes on, he said.

Hendrix said he likes that connection of being able to “pull that audience member in by looking at them directly and pointing at them,” he said.

The first routine of Demi Richarson, as cabaret star Sally Bowles, is the playful “Don’t Tell Mama,” backed by the Kit Kat Girls.

Sally Bowles is a 19-year-old British girl “who has this air of confidence that she is much older than she actually is,” Richardson said.

“It takes a certain amount of guts to be Sally while on stage,” she said. “She’s very intimate, sexual. She uses what she’s got to get what she wants, and that’s not like me at all, so it was very interesting to kind of embellish on being Sally on stage and having to go through her personality.”

The liveliness of the show is carried out also by its musicians: Kevin Lewis on trumpet, Matt Viola on clarinet and saxophone, Ann Nichols on piano, Mar Helen Cameron on piano and synthesizer, Nelson Edwards on percussion, David Oakes on guitar and Amy Stuart on bass.

Interspersed with the scenes of nightlife debauchery is the arrival and settling-in of fresh-faced, naïve American Clifford Bradshaw (Jason Viers).

Clifford “is very meticulous, very proper and organized,” Viers said. He “really gets to find out who he really is because of all the open-mindedness around Berlin at that time, and Sally pushing him.”

He rents a room from Frau Schneider (Tish Owens), who has fallen on hard times but finds joy in a budding relationship with elderly vegetable seller Herr Schultz (Don Grayson).

Richardson said being in the show with her mother, Demetra Richardson, has been a bonding experience, because otherwise they would be too busy to spend that much time together.

The same goes for Don and Jo Grayson. She plays Frau Kost, who regularly gets into spats with the landlady, Frau Schneider, who disapproves of the men she brings home.

“I’m glad that I can bring something comedic to the show, because it gets pretty heavy there at the end,” she said. Plus, “it’s fun with both Don and I being at the theater together instead of I’m home waiting for him or he’s home” alone. There have been about five three- to four-hour rehearsals a week, she said.

Don Grayson, a TheatreWorks veteran who is Jewish, portrays the earnest and sweet Herr Schultz. He said he has studied the World War II era and the Holocaust thoroughly, but taking on the character “is the first time I’ve ever been involved. … When doing the part, I feel the way I would have felt if I had lived in that time, as a Jewish person. I feel the desperation as time goes on. That’s why I think I can get into the emotional part of it pretty significantly.”

However, “you can never get into their shoes. I don’t know how anybody survived that time.”

The show is suggested for people 18 and older.

“Everyone thinks that Martinsville isn’t ready for a show of this nature, but it’s stuff that goes on every day,” Demi Richardson said, and it’s common on TV and movies. “It’s definitely not a show that Martinsville has ever seen in town, but I think they are ready for it.”

Said Hendrix: “I don’t see so much of the sexuality in it. I think the reason it’s [for adults] is because of the subject matter. … It would bring up a lot of questions, and I don’t think some parents are ready to talk about things like that.”

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

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