By Bridgette Redman
When “Cabaret” comes to Phoenix on January 4, the cast will include a member of a deeply rooted Arizona theater family.
The show features David Kelly as Herr Schultz, an elderly fruit-shop owner who lives in the same boarding house as Cliff (Brandon Espinoza), the American writer visiting Berlin. “Cabaret” takes place at the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany when the Nazis are coming to power.
Schultz, a proud German, is also a Jew and faces discrimination and violence from his neighbors but is convinced that this will pass because others will recognize that he is German.
Other stars include Madison Micucci as Sally Bowles and Sean Patrick Doyle as the Emcee.
Kelly comes to Arizona by way of Oregon, and married into one of the area’s best-known actor families. His wife is Terri McMahon, an actress who has performed all around the country and his father-in-law is Pat McMahon, a member of the long-running local children’s television show, “Wallace and Ladmo.”
Pat McMahon’s parents were vaudeville performers who traveled the country throughout his childhood.
Kelly met Terri McMahon in Oregon where they were both performing in “Henry VI, Part 1” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Kelly says it is one of his favorite stories for the symbolism.
His job at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was a dream, as he had been going there since he was 11 years old. “Henry VI, Part 1” was his first effort with the festival, and McMahon was playing Joan of Arc, who in the Shakespeare play, is the villain sent from the devil to beleaguer England. They met on stage as her character was being burned at the stake.
“The stage directions are for four demons to come out of hell and drag her down,” Kelly says. “I was one of the demons that dragged Terri McMahon to hell. We started dating six years later and the rest is history.”
Since then, they’ve spent 18 years together at the festival, buying a house nearby and raising their daughter, Taylor, who is studying the technical side of filmmaking.
“We’ve been through four different artistic directors,” says Terri McMahon. “When we adopted our daughter, we thought if we could be there for two years, it would be great. We got to be there for 18 years—her whole childhood was in one place.”
While his wife grew up in show business, Kelly was the son of a professional ball player. He had many opportunities to follow in his father’s footsteps, but he says he lost interest in baseball very early and switched to music and acting. He found a proclivity for hamming it up in grade school in talent shows and the plays that teachers put on in their classrooms.
“That was a place to get a lot of attention and I was naturally good,” Kelly says. “My mom was very excited because she had wanted to be an actor. I was getting attention and it was a way to meet people of the opposite sex.”
He shares an initial start in athletics with his wife. McMahon says she was an athlete as a child and it wasn’t until she was a junior in high school that she started to show an interest in performing. She attended University of Southern California to train as an actress. Her dad recalls the change.
“She was an athlete, she was the jock in the family,” says Pat McMahon. “She was this lightning-fast sprinter. She never gave any indication there was any desire to sing, dance or anything until halfway through her high school career. One of her electives was a drama class…the second play she was in was from the movie ‘David and Lisa.’ It is lovely and romantic and gut wrenching. It was a really serious drama and she came home and said, by the way, I’m Lisa.”
Now Kelly does Shakespeare, musicals and new plays equally. He doesn’t classify himself as a great singer, but he says he can carry a tune well.
This is his first time performing at Arizona Theatre Company, though he watched his wife perform there shortly after they married. There were two major draws to being in “Cabaret,” which opened in Tucson on November 30.
He worked many times with the director, Sara Bruner, and the choreographer, Jaclyn Miller, who were both at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and are friends of him and McMahon. He had done a staged reading of “Cabaret” with them two summers ago as an AIDS benefit and was delighted when Bruner called him and asked if he’d reprise his role as Schultz.
“A very close second was the chance to be close to Pat (McMahon) and his wife Duffy,” Kelly says. “I haven’t been able to spend much time with them over the years. The last time I was in Phoenix was maybe nine years ago.”
Kelly says he enjoys the opportunity to spend time with his father-in-law.
“He’s so awesome, I love that guy so much,” Kelly says. “He’s so curious and eager to learn, even at his age. He remembers everything. He asks me about stuff I did 20 years ago. There are two people in Cabaret who live in Phoenix and when I mentioned him, they just lit up. One is in her 30s and the other in his 50s. They knew who he was immediately. He’s quite the celebrity.”
The admiration is mutual. Pat McMahon refers to Kelly as gifted and professional. He says he’s marvelously versatile performer. He was especially impressed with “Cabaret,” which he attended on opening night in Tucson.
“I’ve seen it onstage twice before and I’ve seen the movie several times,” he said the afternoon after the show opened. “Last night was a very different look at ‘Cabaret.’ It was deeply moving with a lot of plot lines that involve the human experience, not the least of which was David,” Pat McMahon says.
“He had a deep understanding with his character of what it was like to be rejected as a Jew, even though he took enormous pride in being a German. Herr Schultz continued to remind everyone that he was a German, and that’s why he stayed in Germany, even with all the trials as they were going on.
“I’ve never seen the character played better than David played him last night. I say that from the bottom of my heart. It’s a wonderful cast and the choreography and the voices are so extraordinary that I can’t wait to see it again when it comes to the Herberger.”
McMahon says when his daughter was young, he and his wife whispered to her while she was sleeping the type of person they wanted her to marry—fund manager, neurosurgeon, executive of a Fortune 500 company.
“What does she do?” he asks. “She marries an actor. But she didn’t marry just any actor. She married a guy who is this wonderful human being. He’s a great husband and dad. I’ve seen him in musicals, in straight plays, in Shakespeare, in Marx Brothers, and in Moliere. And last night, I saw him in this delicate, sensitive performance as the older Jewish man as all of Germany and the world was plummeting into the control of the Nazis.”
While “Cabaret” has been a classic since its release in 1966, performances of it have been on the rise, something Kelly feels is happening because personal rights, including religious, racial and sexual, are being jeopardized.
“Even though this play is about the Weimar Republic and the oncoming Nazi threat, I feel like there are similarities in our time with fear and hatred,” Kelly says. “The play is about love trying to survive and in this place—spoiler alert—love doesn’t survive. The play is also about personal responsibility. How much responsibility do we have to the onslaught of things we are afraid of? If we think things are coming on to make life difficult for some people, how much do we stand by and watch that happen?”
In addition to “Cabaret’s” relevance, Kelly encourages people to come to the Herberger because it’s well performed.
“They are seeing a group of 15 incredibly skilled performers,” Kelly says. “We have performers who are phenomenal, and the choreography and the band are terrific. It is all Arizona band members and they cook. (The show) does pack a punch and is really political, but it is also really entertaining and beautiful.”
“Cabaret,” Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix, arizonatheatre.org, various times Saturday, January 4, to Sunday, January 26, tickets start at $50.