by Elisabeth Traugott
"WWelcome, strangers, to the Cabaret" croons the master of ceremonies in a polished German accent as he weaves through a stage set with showgirls draped coquettishly over each other. Such a sinister invitation to the seedy underground world of 1929 Berlin seems enticing.
And that's just the impression that Francis Jue wants to leave.
Jue, the Bay Area native who snagged the lead role in TheatreWorks' current production of "Cabaret," wants people to see the play both for its historical value and its relevance to modern life.
"Why I'm glad we're doing this show now, before the November election, is because what happened in the 1920s and '30s bears a strong resemblance to what is happening right here," Jue said, citing the example of denying benefits to illegal immigrants.
For Jue, the contribution of "Cabaret," which opens Saturday and runs through Nov. 3 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, is its timelessness.
"Cabaret doesn't live in 1929 with these specific people," he said. "It embodies a 16-year-old kid in the inner city who says 'I'm not going to live very long, so what can I do right now?'"
Set in 1929 Berlin, the musical captures the frantic inevitability of an approaching political nightmare carried out by the Nazis. It blends cabaret acts laden with moral and political commentary with snapshots from the lives of expatriates and Germans as they try to navigate their way through the rising tide of Nazism.
As the emcee, Jue narrates the story through song and satire. He appears in musical acts and often smooths transitions to the more dramatic scenes in which lovers are pulled apart by decadence and persecution.
"The emcee is constantly looking at his audience and saying 'What would you do?'" Jue said.
Considered a rising star in West Coast theater, Jue had no formal stage training and didn't considered an acting career until he was in his 20s.
While he was a junior at Yale University, Jue got a call one day from a friend in the entertainment business in New York. The friend asked if he wanted to audition for "Pacific Overtures." It was his first professional audition, and a week later he landed the job. "I had never even taken the train to New York City before," Jue said.
He commuted to the city for rehearsals and shows, and took a year off from his studies to tour when the show went off-Broadway.
He then went back to school and graduated in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in English literature. A Bay Area native, he came back to live in San Francisco and worked at the San Francisco Aids Foundation. At this point in his career, he toyed with the idea of getting a master's degree in public health.
But when the call came asking him to play in a Broadway production of "M. Butterfly" directed by John Dexter, Jue couldn't resist, and since then, "I have been supporting myself as an actor," he said.
Local audiences will remember him for, among other things, his role in regional productions of "Pacific Overtures," for which he won a Bay Area Critics Circle Award. He also had leading roles locally in "M. Butterfly" and "Peter Pan." All three were TheatreWorks productions.
While Jue, 33, enjoyed his work in New York, he's happy to be back home performing in regional productions.
"I would live and work in the Bay Area over New York any day," Jue said. "In regional theater people are allowed to experiment more, to be brave. They are more connected to the theater they serve."
But he admits that the glamour and glitter of Broadway has its moments. "You put a $20,000 kimono on and you know the difference," he said.
While many of his roles have been traditionally Asian, Jue, a Chinese-American, is a self-proclaimed advocate for nontraditional casting.
"People of color have so many fewer opportunities for work that nontraditional casting is an important way of ensuring the type of work continuity that others are afforded," Jue said.
In "Cabaret," he sees his ethnicity as playing an important part in the message the emcee gives the audience. "It reinforces the point that the emcee is an outsider in this story."
Robert Kelley, the artistic director for the production, calls Jue "an ongoing asset to the community," and had Jue specifically in mind when he decided to do a Theaterworks production of "Cabaret."
"It was like, 'I want to do "Cabaret" with Francis as the emcee,'" Kelley said. "I have never seen him do a play, no matter how funny or light, that didn't involve the creation of a very complex character. . . . Francis is remarkably connected with the audience in every show I've ever seen him do."
Kelley also directed the TheatreWorks productions of "Peter Pan," "M. Butterfly" and "Pacific Overtures."
It is the need to include the audience that Jue finds so appealing about acting--and about the "Cabaret" production in particular.
Jue's family of five brothers and three sisters are very supportive of his career, and his father has organized a group of 50 people to attend on opening night.
But Jue realizes that not everyone is so lucky to have such family support. In fact, he sees his role in "Cabaret," with its desperate search for love, as narrating the attempt at "finding affection or understanding wherever you can."
To Jue, the fascism and the decadence of the time only serve to affirm that "we need to find families wherever we can get them," despite a seemingly unpredictable, unsettling world.
What: TheatreWorks production of "Cabaret," winner of eight Tony Awards, based on novel by Christopher Isherwoood
When: Oct. 19 to Nov. 3; 7:30 Tuesdays, 8 p.m Wednesday to Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m Oct. 26 and Nov. 2, 2 and 7 p.m. on Sundays, Oct. 20, 27 and Nov. 3
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro and Mercy streets, Mountain View
Cost: $20 to $28
Information: Call 903-6000; group discounts, 812-7560
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