Jenny Littleton of ‘Doyle and Debbie’ Trades in Twang for ‘Cabaret’

Tennessee Rep’s Cabaret | The Tennessean

Written by Fiona Soltes for The Tennessean

Tennessee Rep's Cabaret Willikommen

The Cast of Tennessee Rep’s Production of Cabaret | Photo Credit: Britanie Knapp of Charm Photo Salon

In here, it’s been said, life is beautiful.

But take another peek: Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s production of the Tony Award-winning “Cabaret” offers a multi-layered contrast of beauty and tarnish, decadence and vulnerability, performance and heartbreaking reality.

It’s early 1930s Berlin, and outside the seedy Kit Kat Club, the Nazis are rising to power. Yet this stage is set for a show: a sexy, glitzy, defiant one. And the Emcee (David Compton, with bare chest, suspenders and rouged nipples) pulls back the curtain for a world many couldn’t have imagined.

The piece, with celebrated book and lyrics by Joe Masteroff and Fred Ebb and memorable music by John Kander, first hit Broadway in 1966, followed by the Liza Minnelli/Joel Grey film in 1972. It was inspired by the works of novelist Christopher Isherwood, creator of fictional performer Sally Bowles. She’s a would-be diva with emerald-green fingernails, a nonchalant air and more confidence in her abilities than likely is warranted.

But as is the way with cabaret, there’s more here than meets the eye. For the Tennessee Rep production — based on a slightly darker 1998 revival — director René D. Copeland has cast Jenny Littleton against type as Bowles. Littleton, who has spent close to seven years as the female can’t-catch-a-break half of the farcical country music duo in http://doyleanddebbie.com/ “The Doyle and Debbie Show,” easily admits her own insecurities. She confesses a gentle, long-practiced, pre-show ritual of speaking love to her audiences. And she humbly puts her trust in Copeland’s vision, a dear friend she’s known since her teens. (“Doyle and Debbie,” meanwhile, is headed for a March-July run in Denver with a new Debbie, a scheduling opportunity Littleton considers “divine intervention.”)

“I’ve been living in the ‘Doyle and Debbie’ world for so long,” she says. “That’s a comfortable one for me. This is not. Being this wannabe diva is great challenge. … But it’s such a great, great musical. I like the way the issues are approached so subtly through the songs, and how it pulls you in. You think you’re just listening to great music and experiencing great entertainment, but then there’s this twist. And by the end of it, you should have a lot to think about.”

Littleton has studied performances by leading ladies of the time, understanding that Bowles would likely be inspired by Marlene Dietrich, Louise Brooks and Norma Shearer in the same way country crooner Debbie would hope to embody Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.

She also knows she won’t carry it alone; the production includes Mike Baum, Ruth Cordell, Marin Miller, Patrick Waller, Derek Whittaker, Martha Wilkinson and a host of others, against a distinctive set designed by Gary C. Hoff.

Even here, the layers of depth and discovery continue. In addition to cabaret tables for the audience, Hoff has developed a two-story set highlighting the “basement” feel of the stage. Much like the show, the walls are texture upon texture, attempting to cover up the unsightly surface below.

“If something was cracked, it got another coat of paint or a poster,” he said. “If something was bruised, more makeup. A few more false eyelashes and some lipstick, and you’re good to go. … There’s a general sense that there should be a lot of texture, and detail, and really cool stuff going on. But then on closer look, it’s broken. That looks a little moldy. Is it damp? As the show goes on, you should get more and more of a feeling that this society is really just falling apart…. It’s a very decadent world, but they just keep slapping another layer of paint on, and thinking everything is fine. The Nazis aren’t going to come. It’ll be fine. It’ll be fine.”

What: Tennessee Repertory Theatre presents “Cabaret.”
Where: Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Johnson Theater, 505 Deaderick St.
When: Feb. 16-March 16; discounted previews Feb. 14-15 ($20-$25). Performances at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Matinees are 2:30 p.m. Feb. 23, March 2 and March 9.
Tickets: Starting at $42.50; tickets for students with valid ID begin at $11.50.
Contact: www.tennesseerep.org or 615-782-4040.
The show contains adult content.

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