While teaching at Surrey schools over the course of 35 years, Cheryl Mullen never shied from odd casting calls.
Right now, Mullen is immersed in another role, in Royal City Musical Theatre’s production of Cabaret, which plays Massey Theatre in New Westminster for a two-week run starting Thursday, April 12.
The landmark musical, set in the Kit Kat Klub of early-’30s Berlin, features Mullen as Fraulein Schneider, whose love of Herr Schultz (played by Damon Calderwood) is one storyline in Christopher Isherwood’s tale of hard-living entertainers, antisemitism and Germany’s hard-right political turn of the era.
Mullen is thrilled to play Schneider – “one of the best roles for an older female performer, because it’s so beautifully written,” she said.
“I’ve been in musical theatre for thousands of years,” she added with a laugh. “I really wanted this part, and I’m very jazzed about it.”
Director Bob Fosse’s 1972 movie version of Cabaret, which starred Liza Minnelli as troubled entertainer Sally Bowles, did not include the characters of Schneider and Schultz, Mullen noted.
“The movie was a twisted version to allow Liza Minnelli to have a star vehicle, so they basically rewrote the whole thing, and this (RCMT’s stage production) is something some people might see through brand-new eyes,” Mullen insisted.
“What’s cool is how relevant this story is,” she continued. “The actual musical play (written by John Kander and Fred Ebb) took its formation in the ’60s and was then redone in ’89 and reworked in ‘98 and went back on Broadway in 2014. So it’s had a number of different rewrites and different stretchings – it’s been that versatile a vehicle.”
A Surrey resident since 1981, Mullen’s work at schools in the area included teaching drama and choir at Johnston Heights Secondary for a decade and, shortly before her retirement from the profession, a stint with a Grade 6 class at Senator Reid Elementary, located not far from her home in the Cedar Hills area.
As a young adult, she majored in voice at Northwestern University in Chicago. Mullen pursued musical-theatre gigs there and also back in B.C., to which she returned to raise three kids and work as a teacher.
RCMT’s production of Cabaret also stars Lauren Bowler (as Sally Bowles), Andrew Cownden (the gender-bending emcee), Tim Howe (Clifford Bradshaw), Olesia Shewchuk (Fraulein Kost) and Gavin Leclaire (Ernst). Surrey-area residents Rachel Theilade and Britt Bailey are among the more than 20 singers and dancers in the cast. The show also features a 12-piece orchestra.
“It’s going to be a snappy time,” Mullen raved. “Nobody is going to be doing any snoozing during this show.”
The story follows Bowles as she meets Clifford Bradshaw, falls in love, gets pregnant and then must choose between motherhood and show-girl life.
With Valerie Easton as director, Royal City’s version of Cabaret is more family-friendly than recent revivals of the show, Mullen explained.
“Alan Cumming was the last emcee on Broadway, and they went super dark and raunchy, because that’s what the Weimar Republic was, between the world wars in Germany, right,” she said.
“Valerie hasn’t sanitized it,” Mullen continued, “and the full story is there, but we haven’t gone for the hardcore raunch, but you still get a very decent flavour of the wildness of the society of the time, the freedom and then the rise of the Nazi party. It was fertile ground for that, because a particular portion of the starving population wanted things to swing back to nationalism and to get all the people who flocked to Berlin, out, including the Jewish people and all the others who had arrived there for this free society.”
Easton, Mullen added, has been “absolutely tremendous with taking time for the script because, as she says, the book story in this musical has far more depth to it than many, many other musicals. And of course, her choreography chops are amazing, and the young people who are the cabaret singer-dancers, they’re all in their 20s and stuff – they’re spot-on, just great.”
In a statement, Easton says Cabaret’s themes remain relevant today, and that “we as a society still have a way to go in regard to racism, prejudice, hatred and greed.”