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Cabaret returns to UW-Eau Claire on Jan. 27

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Avery Burns, a December 2021 choral education graduate, has taken part in Cabaret every year as a Blugold. The show pictured above was the 2020 performance of “Game Over,” a production depicting players trapped in the world of a video game.

Cabaret is returning to the stage at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with an entirely student written, produced and directed musical show.

This year’s production is titled “Olympia,” based around Greek mythology, and will run eight shows between Thursday, Jan. 27, and Saturday, Feb. 5, with two Friday night dinner shows in the Dakota Ballroom of the Davies Student Center.

Tickets are available online. All attendees will be required to wear face masks.

Cabaret is a campus tradition dating back to 1978, spanning a myriad of show themes, including Broadway, decades in American history, famous books and stories, movies and, most recently, video games in 2020. The show was canceled due to COVID in 2021, and the planned theme for that show was carried over to this year’s production.

The show “Olympia” depicts a school field trip that takes an unexpected turn when students find themselves stuck overnight in a museum where mythical characters come to life. The students encounter Greek gods, goddesses and legendary figures such Medusa, Hades, Aphrodite, Dionysus and many more over the course of the eight-set show. Each set features four to six recognizable hit songs and dancing from about 80 ensemble members.

As always, the 2022 Cabaret show features the talents of the UW-Eau Claire Cabaret Orchestra, Concert Choir, jazz ensembles, The Singing Statesmen and Women’s Concert Chorale. 

Student driven, start to finish

Frank Watkins and female student backstage at Cabaret

Dr. Frank Watkins offered backstage support to 2020 Cabaret intern Shelby Hoff, seen here during some tech checks.

Under the supervision of Dr. Frank Watkins, associate professor of music and director of choral studies at UW-Eau Claire, a leadership team of 16 current and former students have done all the script writing, vocal arrangements, choreography and set design for the show. Kaitlyn Konrardy leads the student team as the Cabaret Productions student intern.

“Cabaret is really different from all other campus shows in that it’s completely created by students,” says Konrardy, a music-liberal arts major from Marshfield. “We have faculty supervision, and our vocal arrangers and choreographers are enrolled in a credited class for their roles, but all the ideas — everything you see on the stage — came from students. It’s really cool.”

After the cancellation of the 2021 Cabaret, a decision was made to extend the opportunity for spring 2021 graduates to maintain their roles on the Cabaret production leadership team, resulting in a uniquely blended leadership team for “Olympia.”

“It was important that we offer this experience to all students, including those who recently graduated,” Watkins says. “The beauty of Cabaret is that it is the only completely student-run production in the department — student creativity is at the forefront. With the cancellation of the 2021 show, it was imperative that we honor the hard work the students put in the previous semester.”

One of those recent graduates is Avery Burns, a choral teaching major from Appleton who is a vocal arranger on the leadership team. Burns says the challenge of finding the right songs to depict the idea of each set has been fun, along with the chance to include some insight into these mythological figures.

“Our set is about Medusa,” Burns says. “Most people just think of her as a monster, but Medusa has a unique story people may not know — she was raped by Poseidon and then cursed by Athena. We tried to develop her character as a victim who learned how to own her story, choosing songs that fit with that progression.”

Fellow vocal arranger on the set is Hailey Monreal, a December 2021 choral education graduate from Grafton. She describes her role as one that takes existing songs — some rock and pop classics and other current hits — and arranges them to suit the talent of each choral group.

“After a lot of brainstorming all spring for the theme and songs, then establishing the order, the summer is spent making the songs fit to the voices of our ensemble,” Monreal says. “So, for this set, we had to write the music for the vocal range of our soprano and alto singers.”

In addition to vocal performers, the show includes four student actors who portray the field trip students in the museum. The script for those actors, which takes the audience on the journey through all the myths, was written by AJ Wielichowski, who also cast the actors for the roles.

“It was fun to write,” says Wielichowski, a senior musical theatre major from Oak Creek, admitting she never thought of herself as a writer.

“The actors only end up with four days to learn the script, so I had to really balance the lines and make sure each role was able to be learned in that timeframe.”

Learning on the job

For Chase Bucheger, a sophomore choral teaching major from Chippewa Falls, this second time around as Cabaret choreographer is giving him not only more experience in a teaching role with cast members, but it’s opening his eyes to how different demographics can require a completely different approach to instruction.

“Two years ago, I had a predominantly male ensemble, and this year I am working with the treble ensemble, which is mostly women,” he says. “Just seeing the difference in how men and women communicate and learn dance is really interesting — from a preference to see big picture first and get details later to now those who ask for all the details from the ground up — it’s pretty cool. I’m learning different teaching styles from this.”

Along the lines of working from the ground up, vocal arranger Emmaline Liske finds the lengthy and progressive Cabaret process to be highly rewarding.

“I have really enjoyed my role,” says Liske, a senior vocal teaching major from Oshkosh. “It’s so amazing to start something from scratch. To start with nothing and end with a powerful and cohesive performance is really exciting.”   

An appealing program and a place to belong

Dancer in Cabaret

The 2022 Cabaret intern is Kaitlyn Konrardy, shown here as a cast member in the 2020 “Game Over” production.

It’s clear that Cabaret has long been a high-impact experience for generations of Blugolds, but for Bucheger, it was the existence of Cabaret itself that drew him to UW-Eau Claire in the first place.

“I did competitive show choir all through high school,” he says. “When I found out Cabaret was a thing at UWEC, I knew I was going to be involved. It is what drew me to Eau Claire most of all.”

From the 80-some diverse cast members and 16 leadership team members alike, one aspect of Cabaret rings true for all participants: Cabaret is an experience that both builds bonds among students and provides an immediate anchor to campus.

“Cabaret is the first place I really felt at home on campus,” Konrardy says of the event she’s taken part in for four years. “I don’t know how to describe it. It’s magical in some way, and I know that sounds cliché, but that’s how it feels. It’s like we’re these innocent underdogs all working towards this big, huge thing and then we actually accomplish it — it’s the coolest thing ever.”

Perhaps what best sums up the Cabaret experience was described by Bucheger as one of the standing traditions for the last show of the series.

“Traditionally, at the end of the show on the last night, someone in the band will start to play ‘September’ by Earth, Wind and Fire,” he says. “The entire cast just runs out into the orchestra dancing, and we sing the whole song together. It’s not officially part of the show, and we don’t know why it even got started, but it’s just the thing we do and it’s super fun.”

To see the full leadership team, cast, crew, orchestra and set list, see the Cabaret 2022 Program.