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The Talented Joel Ferrell: The Director as Workhorse

by Jerome Weeks 17 May 2011 5:09 AM

No director has staged two, back-to-back mainstage shows at the Dallas Theater Center in 25 years (if we exclude ‘Christmas Carols’). Joel Ferrell not only did it, he did it with two of the DTC’s best productions recently: ‘Dividing the Estate’ and now, ‘Cabaret.’


Historians have discovered that Weimar Berlin was where the tiny hat fad started: Wade McCollum as the emcee with the Kit Kat Klub dancers

The Dallas Theater Center has presented two acclaimed productions this spring: Horton Foote’s Dividing the Estate and its current offering, the musical Cabaret. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports on Joel Ferrell, the director who staged both shows, back-to-back.

  • Art&Seek review of Dividing the Estate
  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

Let’s exclude productions of A Christmas Carol from this calculation. If we do, no one has directed two, back-to-back, mainstage shows at the Theater Center since artistic director Adrian Hall did it … 25 years ago.

Ferrell: “I have to say, there’s a good reason not to do it [laughs].”

Actually, Joel Ferrell says, when Kevin Moriarty, the company’s current artistic director, asked him to pick one of the two shows, it was Ferrell who opted for both. He staged Horton Foote’s wry satire of a wealthy Texas family coming apart, and the same week Dividing the Estate opened, he started rehearsing Cabaret, the 1966 Broadway musical about Berlin’s bawdy nightlife during the rise of the Nazis.

The tight schedule only played to Ferrell’s strengths. He was artistic director of Casa Manana for six years, staging show after show. Earlier, after graduating from high school in Fort Worth, he spent a year in what’s known as “summer stock.” It’s the old-fashioned kind of theater — seasonal and often rural — that depends upon lots of shows and fast rehearsals.

Ferrell: “In the great old days of summer stock, you put up a tent, you slammed eight shows in a row. And you just worked on sheer lack of sleep and adrenaline. And yet, a season of summer stock in 1981, then I moved to New York, and truly, nothing could scare me – it’s that crazy.”

There was one thing that scared him. Agnes de Mille. She was the great choreographer of a dozen Broadway musicals like Oklahoma! and Paint Your Wagon. Ferrell came to New York on a dance scholarship with the American Ballet Theater. De Mille had been a charter member when ABT was formed, but now she was working on what would be her last ballet, The Informer. She was 80 years old and had suffered a stroke.

She was still a formidable presence, though. She had to rap on the rehearsal room mirror to get attention. She hit it so hard, she fractured it.

Ferrell: “It was the most frightened I’ve ever been with a director-choreographer – and the most I’ve ever learned.”

[“Willkommen” begins under this]

Ferrell has become the Theater Center’s house choreographer, working on such shows as The Who’s Tommy and It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman (although he also directed last season’s reasons to be pretty, one of the trio of Neil LaBute “Beauty Plays”). He’s given this Cabaret a twitchy dance style he calls “broken rag doll.” In fact, staging the musical has entailed more than just following the model of director Sam Mendes’ hit revival from 1993 that the Roundabout Theatre brought to New York in 1998. Cabaret has actually morphed several times over the years – from stage to film to revivals. And Ferrell himself has expanded roles to make the show more of an ensemble portrait of Berlin, more like the stories by Christopher Isherwood that originally inspired the show’s creators.

He’s also changed one main role.

[Wade McCollum sings]

The master of ceremonies. Originally, he was just a device to get the next song started in the Kit Kat Klub. The show’s creators — writer Joe Masteroff, director Hal Prince, songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb — didn’t even give the character a name, let alone any background. But by the time Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning film version was made in 1972, Joel Grey had turned the emcee into a starring role.

Certainly, at the Theater Center, audience members oooh over performer Wade McCollum’s leering, aggressive emcee. And … his sculpted muscles. The emcee has always been an impish, cynical figure. But McCollum and Ferrell have made him more disturbing. Now he joins in the fun with anyone: audience members, transvestites – or Nazis.

Ferrell: “I wasn’t concerned with him as a human character. I wanted an audience attached to him the way anything that entices you toward what could be the worst of you.”

Cabaret starts with the emcee inviting us to forget what’s going on outside. Inside are all the naughty, androgynous hijinks critics and audience members love. Inside, life is beautiful — although people quote that line without recalling it’s the emcee who says it. And he’s busy mocking us while pimping out his dancers (“the club’s not making money on the drinks,” as Ferrell says). Any strip joint sells us dreams.

But the musical, Ferrell points out, proceeds by showing us how things are getting worse and worse, forcing each character to decide what to do about the growing strength of the National Socialists. Do I flee, stay, keep my head down, ignore them or join up?

Leaving the outside world  “outside” simply becomes untenable.

Ferrell: “To me, it’s like, ‘Here, let me peel back a layer. Can you still pretend everything’s OK outside? All right, let me get another layer. How ya doing now?’ “

In short, the show is like one long striptease. Then Ferrell peels back the last layer — to reveal a real nakedness.

The two Theater Center shows Ferrell has directed may have been back-to-back, but he says, compared to his summer stock days, the schedule was almost relaxed. He’s had time to ponder playscripts the way he did with Cabaret.

[‘Willkommen’ comes back for its finish.]

Ferrell: “Homework is necessary for me – and pleasurable. It truly is. It’s how I study a script. But … I’m proud to say I’m still as tense and ridiculously stressed as I always was [laughs].”

All images by Karen Almond, except photo of Joel Ferrell, by Dana Driensky.