Interview: Life is a ‘Cabaret’ for Actress Jillian Kate Weingart

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CHICAGO – One of the top musical theater voices working in Chicago is actress/singer Jillian Kate Weingart. After triumphs in several local productions, she is currently featured in the iconic role of Sally Bowles in a staging of “Cabaret,” presented by BrightSide Theatre of Naperville, Ill., through June 29th, 2014.

Jillian Kate Weingart is moving up the musical theater ladder here in Chicago, having had memorable appearances in the locally produced musicals ”A New Brain” and ”Adult Entertainment.” Her characteristic stage energy is electric and sensational, with a multi-range vocal style that can handle the best of Broadway and standard song material.

Jillian Weingart
Jillian Kate Weingart appears in BrightSide Theatre’s ‘Cabaret’
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The website Chicago Theatre Review reviewed her performance in “Cabaret” – “Ms. Weingart is the real deal and is alone worth the price of admission.” Jillian Weingart talked to about taking on one of the great musical theater roles in Broadway history, as Sally Bowles. When you got the part of Sally Bowles, what is the key to cleansing out all of the influences of how the character was played before you, and making her your own?

Jillian Kate Weingart: I grew up listening to the 1998 revival version of the show, so for me it was not doing any of that. No Natasha Richardson from that revival, and certainly no Liza Minnelli from the film version. There has to be a sense of past productions, especially with a popular show like ‘Cabaret,’ and you don’t want to disappoint an audience expectation. So I stayed away from previous recordings, and worked hard on making her character my own. Since the play had its initial run in the late 1960s, there have been different interpretations of the piece, often going into darker and more adult territory. What distinguishes your version as far as creating a different interpretation?

Weingart: When the director of our show, Jeffery Cass, decided to mount “Cabaret,’ he got the rights to the original 1967 version. When he was explaining why he wanted to do ‘Cabaret’ to the gathered cast, he realized that the ‘60s version didn’t have any relevance in the real world, so he went back and got the rights to the 1998 stage version – which was difficult because they’re currently doing it on Broadway.

We’re reaching out to the politics of today, because you can break down elements in our ‘Cabaret’ and relate it back to now. In our staging, we make the audience part of the cabaret setting, so it feels like we’re coming at you and you’re a part of the story. Our version is much darker than people might expect. In the conclusion we pay tribute to a monument in Auschwitz – the “Open Grave Memorial’ – that remembers the desecration of Holocaust victims. This is something the director added, we wanted to hit that point home with the audience. After going through the cleansing process, what influences were you sourcing to develop an understanding of Sally, did you for example go back to the Christopher Isherwood source novel or the play ‘I Am a Camera,’ or perhaps historical references to the era?

Jillian Weingart as Sally Bowles in BrightSide Theatre’s ‘Cabaret’
Photo credit: Tim Robbins for Brightside Theatre

Weingart: Anything that had to do with Chris Isherwood was actually a huge part of our production. We also looked into the play ‘I Am a Camera,’ and I watched a documentary about Isherwood. I wanted to look into the history, because I love history, and what I found out that the real person who influenced the character of Sally Bowles was a political activist. It was surprising because Sally as a character isn’t an activist. So I also stayed close to the script, to find her truth. The character of Sally is not really interested in history, and the truth of her is found in the script. Sally is both a deep acting job and a challenging singing role. Which of these parts gave you the most difficulty initially, and how does the performance process change when they finally come together?

Weingart: Here’s an example in the song, ‘Cabaret.’ There is always a joke that musical theater people say, ‘why didn’t you option up?’ That means to sing the last note of the song higher than it’s actually written. My musical director wants me to ‘option up’ every night, and generally I do, but at the matinee last Sunday I just sang the note as written, because by that time I had done the show nine times that week, so I decided not to do it for that performance. [laughs] The singing part of the show wasn’t as hard as the acting part. The challenge was being that lovable character, to be funny – with all the timing involved in that – and heartfelt at the same time. There are so many great songs in the musical. Which of the ones that you sing is most underrated, as far as indicating what Sally’s character is all about?

Weingart: The two songs that define Sally is ‘Maybe This Time’ and ‘Cabaret.’ We had a debate as to how ‘Maybe This Time’ fits in Sally’s journey. We decided that her heart is singing that song, not her mind. It was pure heart coming out, as to what she really wants in life. I break down a bit during it, freak out and stalk off stage. And the song ‘Cabaret’ also becomes about Sally’s core being in our version. In a time of social crisis, such as the rise of the Nazis, women are often sacrificed to the sheer force of this social change. What do you think Sally represents regarding the treatment of women in that era and in the context of the play?

Weingart: Sally represents the people who denied that the atrocities of the Nazi regime was going on. To save their own lives they don’t say anything. You are a theater veteran. Which of your stage roles felt closest to who you are, and how did that make the role different or life changing since it was so close?

Weingart: When I told some friends of mine that I was playing Sally Bowles, one of them said, ‘what do you mean you’re playing Sally Bowles, you ARE Sally Bowles.’ [laughs] I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not. It even comes down to what she drinks – she’s always asking people for a spot of gin. My drink of choice is gin on the rocks with a lemon peel. It’s kind of spooky, but there you are. As actors rise through the performance system, I often ask this question…at what point in your performance life did you turn around and think, how did I get here?

Weingart: The how-did-I-get-here moment for me happened after I came back from Los Angeles, where I was doing cruise ship musical theater. One of my vocal coaches from the ship invited me to be a part of her storefront theater in Riverside, California, putting together a brand new musical. I worked on putting that together for six months, and realized it was going nowhere. I finally looked around one day and thought, what the hell am I doing here? Shortly after that, I moved back to Chicago.

BrightSide Theatre presents “Cabaret” at Meiley-Swallow Hall at North Central College, 31 S. Ellsworth Avenue, Naperville, Illinois, through June 29th, 2014, Friday-Sundays. Click here for complete information and to purchase tickets. Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff – based on a book by Christopher Isherwood. Featuring Jillian Kate Weingart, David Geinosky and Jonas Davidnow. Directed by Jeffrey Cass. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2014 Patrick McDonald,

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