When an iconoclastic theater company like Frank Theatre tackles a musical like "Cabaret," you can almost bet it won't be anything like the original.
But the Frank Theatre's "Cabaret," which opens tonight at the Centennial Showboat on Harriet Island in St. Paul, does feature a performer who had a starring role in the original Broadway production.
"Cabaret," if you haven't seen it on the stage or screen, is about a handful of disparate characters thrown together in a depressed, depraved Berlin, Germany in the 1930s. The economy has collapsed and the Nazis are on the rise, but nobody's paying attention.
Melissa Hart starred in the original "Cabaret," which was on Broadway for three years from 1966 to 1969. She joined the show late in its run as Sally Bowles, the two-bit American nightclub singer. It's the same part that launched Liza Minnelli to international stardom in the 1972 film version.
Hart has not only acted in "Cabaret," she has directed it. Given that history, it's a little surprising to see her rehearsing with her fellow Frank actors in a floating theater on the upper Mississippi in the middle of a Minnesota winter.
It turns out Hart and her husband moved to St. Paul from New York nearly three years ago, at the invitation of the Frank Theatre's artistic director Wendy Knox. Hart became a Knox admirer as one of the nuns in the Ordway Theater's 2007 production of "The Sound of Music," which Knox directed.
In Frank's "Cabaret," Hart plays Fraulein Schneider, the German landlady who falls in love with her elderly Jewish tenant. It's a role she's also played before.
Hart said it's not strange for her to be in this show at this stage of her career.
"The neatest part about this for me is that I've had this wonderful arc in the show," Hart said.
That arc now includes Frank Theatre. The company's modus operandi calls for the creative team and cast to be sticklers about the storyline, to excavate the script and pull out all its meaning. It can be a painstaking process, but Knox said it's one Hart seems to have embraced.
"I watch her in rehearsal sometimes [and] something will be happening, and I can ... hear her thinking 'What the?'" Knox said. "And then seeing her when something happens, where she jumps up and she cheers 'Oh, this makes so much sense!' It's just a delight."
"Someone with such a deep connection to the material is a very unusual gift to have in the room," said Bradley Greenwald, who's making his Frank debut as the sleazy Kit Kat Club emcee.
Having Hart in the cast could have been a challenge for Sara Richardson. She is making her first foray into musical theater since high school as Sally Bowles, and she's doing it alongside the woman who played Sally in the original Broadway production. But Richardson said Hart has given her plenty of space to create her own Sally Bowles.
"At first it was very intimidating, but I feel like that aspect has gone away," she said. "And now it's just to feel like I have this person in my corner is a lovely feeling."
The Frank production of "Cabaret" promises not to be anything like your dad's "Cabaret," as Knox likes to say. Hart said by dumping some of the songs that were just vehicles for Liza Minnelli, Frank has redefined the show.
"I find this more intriguing, because I think we're getting rid of all that gloss," she said. "Get rid of that and go to the true story."
Hart said Frank Theatre has helped her realize what "Cabaret" really is -- not so much a musical, but a play with music.