MODESTO — Playing a lead role in any iconic stage production carries a very special challenge.
Take, for instance, the characters of the Emcee and Sally Bowles in Modesto Performing Arts' staging of "Cabaret," which is coming to the Gallo Center for the Arts from June 28-30.
The vast majority of patrons will have seen the movie, or a stage presentation, or both, and they'll take their seats at the Gallo with visions of Joel Grey and Liza Minnelli dancing in their heads.
Charles Osborne, who plays the emcee at the Kit Kat Klub, and Chelsea Costa, who portrays Bowles, don't see this familiarity as a drawback, but an opportunity.
"I never wanted to be Joel Grey," said Osborne, 23, a New York City resident brought to Modesto for the role. "For me, the biggest problem was trying too hard to create something different. When you play an iconic role you want to put your own stamp on it."
Costa has a special reason for wanting to put her own mark on the role of the British singer headlining at the seedy Berlin club, circa 1931. This is a homecoming and the first chance to perform at the Gallo Center for the 1999 Downey High grad.
"One of the awesome things about this show is that the characters are so well-written and there's so much depth to them," Costa said. "It allows the story to ring true all these years after World War II. There's so much to find within these characters that you don't have to do an impersonation."
Costa is an MPA veteran, first appearing in "Bye, Bye Birdie" while in high school. It was during that production that she found her life's calling.
"I moved to New York City to pursue musical theater and stayed there 5-6 years, doing the professional musical theater thing," said Costa, whose husband also a stage performer will join her in this production. "I went on national tours and performed regionally. I missed California, so last year we relocated to Los Angeles.
"I always hoped to be able to come home to a theater like this. This is my first time performing at the Gallo and I'm really, really excited. The Gallo has had a lot of great touring companies come through and a lot of great names and I'm excited to be on the roster of people getting to play there. To me, this is as exciting as playing the Fox in Detroit or Radio City Music Hall."
While the productions and the performers change from year to year, the one MPA constant has been Paul Tischer. This is his 47th MPA season and this 93rd production.
"No wonder I'm so tired," he joked.
"I've done practically every musical that ever has been written. We did this 10 years ago and it was a big smash hit. We recycle the shows and there aren't many musicals you can do that aren't familiar."
Yes, the story, the characters and the music of "Cabaret" are very familiar. But now that we're sitting 80 years after the decline of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany, it could be time for a whole new set of theatergoers to discover the darkness and feel the fear of the period.
And that's where the Emcee enters, stage left. His character not only sets the tone of the show, but if successful pulls together the duel story of the failing club and the declining society it serves.
"I've done research on the world of Weimar Cabaret and the politics of the time," said Osborne, who first appeared with MPA in last season's "Anything Goes." "The emcee often is seen as a walking metaphor for the changing state of consciousness of the Weimar Republic.
"The trend for about the last 15 years has been to make this character cruel and shocking just to have that same effect on the audience. This emcee has a lot more heart and I think it will resonate with a lot more people, especially in this age of anti-bullying and acceptance of a lot more kinds of people."
But despite the tweaks to the characters and the single-set approach the MPA will be bringing to the Gallo, the essence of "Cabaret" the qualities that made it a worldwide smash will remain the same.
And there, again, rises the challenge. In many ways, it's the foremost job of the cast and crew to not get in the way of the story.
"The production looks fantastic," Osborne said. "The dancing is better than things I've seen on Broadway. People are going to be astounded by what they see on stage. The singing is fantastic and the big numbers are show-stoppers. People will get a little bit of everything from this show."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek
WHAT: Modesto Performing Arts' "Cabaret"
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. June 28-29; 2 p.m. June 29-30
WHERE: Foster Family Theater, Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto
CALL: (209) 338-2100