Center stage at Ventura College Theatre is barren and black as a midnight alley until the sign drops from above, casting its red glow and leaving everybody just a little speechless: Cabaret, it whispers — seductively. Lit with yellow-white bulbs tracing the cursive red lettering, the sign that says it all, and that neither cast nor crew has seen up to this moment, sets the mood for the rehearsal that follows.
Out of costume but in character, the cast, including a handful of dancing girls and dancing waiters, transforms the theater into 1930s Berlin. Their Ws turn to Vs as they emote in German accents alongside fanciful set pieces culled from the show’s very first Broadway run.
Director Mel Swope looks on from the middle of the near-empty theater. Today, the cast rehearses without the tiny microphones it will wear when the show opens March 31, without the 17-piece orchestra that will back it up, and without the band that will portray the band in the Kit Kat Club, the sultry, seedy cabaret for which the famous musical is famously named.
With 44 cast members and 105 costumes, including a few Vegas-style headdresses, this is a big, bold production. The orchestra that will provide a full, beefy sound will work out of the usual pit and sit onstage, behind the action. Performers will have to keep one eye on various monitors to take cues from music conductor Burns Taft. These people have their work cut out for them.
Among them is 27-year-old Tamora Pellikka, a classically trained opera singer who’s making her musical-theater debut as the one and only Sally Bowles, the complicated siren portrayed so memorably by Liza Minnelli in the 1972 film of the same name. But Pellikka, with her fine features, soft, blue eyes and blond hair doesn’t appear — at first glance, anyway — to have much in common with Minnelli.
For one thing, Pellikka’s Bowles sports a sophisticated British accent. Pellikka credits Swope for allowing her to grow into the character and really get to know Sally on her own terms. “I came to him and said, ‘I have the idea she would have a Queens [a type of British] accent,” Pellikka said. “I think Sally’s very much someone who puts on airs about her station.”
Which makes Bowles very unlike Pellikka, who said she was challenged by “having to sing and dance at the same time” and got plenty of help from Cathy Butter, choreographer, and Kristen Littlefield, assistant choreographer, both of whom she credits for helping her master her role.
Pellikka, a self-proclaimed “theater brat,” traveled the world with her British mother, who works in costuming for theater, opera and films. She began singing at the age of 7, attended the San Francisco Conservatory to study opera and made her debut with the San Francisco Symphony. She’s performed in Oedipus Tex, a parody of Oedipus Rex, and on the Italian stage.
“Having grown up always behind the scenes, I know how much goes into this,” she said, slipping on a pair of heels that are part of her transformation into the great Ms. Bowles. “You have to be really comfortable when you go out there and feel that vulnerable.”