The last time I saw Cabaret it was on Broadway starring Dougie Howser. I mean Neil Patrick Harris. At that point — pre-How I Met Your Mother, Emmy nominations, and Tony Award hosting gigs — I still thought of Harris as the prodigy doctor. That mindset could have ruined the show for me, but ya know what, Harris kicked ass. I credit that to his chameleon-like acting skills and to Christopher Isherwood, the man who wrote the part Harris got to play — Cabaret's Emcee, one of the great male roles in musical theater.
Now Brian Porter takes on the Emcee role (again) for What If?'s production of Cabaret, a festive holiday tale all about the Nazi uprising of the 1930s.
I kid. Nothing about Cabaret shouts joy to the world, and in What If?'s interpretation it gets even grimmer.
"Our theater isn't really known for family-friendly holiday entertainment," says Porter. "In fact, we tend to go the exact opposite." Which is to say, if you're sick of Santa sap, this is the show for you.
You see just before the Führer took over, there was a Bohemian vibe in Berlin, a spell that allowed places like the fictional Kit Kat Club, a raunchy cabaret, to exist. Taking a cue from the 1998 Broadway revival starring Alan Cumming, Porter and director Kyle Barnett have taped into that bawdy history, amping up the seedy underbelly that was Berlin during the Great Depression.
"In the '98 version with Alan Cumming, the play was stripped down to its bare bones. We found it inspirational," says Porter. It will certainly be a departure for those who saw Porter play the role the last time around. In 2010 he was the Emcee in Charleston Stage's Cabaret production. City Paper writer Greg Hambrick reviewed the show, and while he was mildly pleased with the overall production, he was positively smitten with Porter's performance.
"He's not just a pretty face and a pretty chest and a pretty set of abs and ... you get the idea. Porter plays the audience like there's only one piece of candy in this world and he's it," Hambrick wrote. He later gave the actor "Best Drool-Worthy Thespian" in City Paper's 2010 Best of Charleston Awards.
If only Hambrick were here to see Porter now. If what the actor says is true, his gritty sex appeal has gotten even grittier.
"There's a very raw sexuality to him," explain Porter of his character. This time the Kit Kat Club's master of ceremonies, the Emcee appears nearly nude except for testicle-hugging suspenders, his nipples rouged.
"I see him as this androgynous omni-sexual," says Porter.
And his role is at the center of the show. As Richard Gilman wrote in Newsweek, the Emcee acts as a metaphor for what's going on outside the club with the rise of Hitler — he represents the filthiness and even exposes it in the song "If You Could See Her." Dancing with a gorilla the song seems like slapstick until the last line when the Emcee hisses, "She doesn't look Jewish at all." It's at that point, the audience realizes that Germans, by doing nothing, are just as complicit to the country's growing anti-semitism.
"The Emcee is the one character who bridges the gap and pops into and out of the scenes. He sees that, he gets it," says Porter.
Porter gets it too, for he really isn't just a pretty face, and abs, and, well, you know. He's a thoughtful thespian who realizes the political implications the production has in regards to current events.
"The story begins at a time of potential. Things were terrible, but at that point, if people had made different or better choices or had fought harder, or had the foresight that we have learning from history, things could have been different maybe," he say. "Think of the choices you will make and won't make and how they will impact everyone.