Cabaret shines a light on the topic of mental illness

By Jason Mount

Smiling teachers, giddy students and excited performers all tuned in to “A Light in the Dark,” a cabaret that was held on April 17.

The hour-long performance, hosted by Rider’s student-run performing arts club, The Broncway, focused on mental health and the emotions that come with facing oneself. Around 60 people attended the cabaret, held over Zoom, and listened to a medley of songs that related to each performer’s view of mental health.

Junior musical theater majors Kristen Wisneski and Steven Gagliano opened the cabaret with a few words about “A Light in the Dark” and the inspiration behind it.

“I wanted to bring this up and celebrate mental health during Mental Health Awareness month, which is April,” said Gagliano.

The first performer was Zak Sandler, a professional piano player who has worked for multiple Broadway shows including “Wicked,” “Mean Girls,” “Motown” and “The Color Purple.”

Zak Sandler wrote the musical “Inside My Head” about his bipolar disorder. He performed the first 15 minutes for the cabaret. Photo courtesy of Zak Sandler.

Sandler performed the first 15 minutes of his own musical called “Inside My Head,” a piece about his bipolar disorder. In the snippet, he describes the feelings of depression, mania and paranoia, and even personified them as characters — Doug, Mark and Patty, respectively.

As he performed, Sandler painted a picture of his time in college, the rush of inspiration that comes with finally pursuing a path tailored to his interests and what happened when he first started struggling with his mental health. 

“My mind took on a mind of its own,” he said.

Once Sandler finished, all those watching applauded with muted microphones or waved their hands to mimic the sensation. After Sandler was sophomore musical theater major Erica Walker singing “Thursday” by Jess Glynne.

As Walker sang lyrics about knowing oneself and wanting to heal, her voice seamlessly transitioned between powerful and soft and back again. She had masterful control over her voice, and mixing it with the lyrical content allowed her to express a vulnerability that makes sense in a cabaret about mental health.

Next was sophomore musical theater major John Viggiano singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” by Barbra Streisand, a number that exuded feelings of victory, as if after a long battle with negative emotions. 

It felt as though Viggiano was radiating this positive feeling, and as he performed the song with such conviction, one could not help but believe that better days were on the horizon even in a pandemic. While his connection to the Zoom conference did cut out on the first attempt, his second attempt made everyone quickly forget any such hiccup occurred and the audience was drawn in by the warmth of his song.

Other numbers followed, including “She Used to Be Mine” from the musical “Waitress” sung by junior musical theater major Mac Versak-Kennedy and “Big White Room” by Jessie J, sung by freshman musical theater major Brianna Nicola.

Versak-Kennedy’s performance was sincere and somber as he expressed feelings about a person he used to know, while Nicola’s was a powerhouse number about wanting to experience the world outside of a room she is trapped in. Both pieces had the audience’s full attention, empathetic looks adorning their faces as though they understood the messages of the songs.

Sophomore musical theater major John Ververis was next, singing Demi Lovato’s “Anyone.” Ververis enthralled everyone watching as he sang Lovato’s words about wishing for someone to hear pleas for help, a tune of hope and despair at the same time.

Perhaps it was the moments Ververis breathed deeply or the expression on his face, or a combination of both that seemed to make his performance real and impactful in a way that lasted with the audience long after the cabaret ended.

Finishing off the performances was junior musical theater Katie Collins singing “Bird Set Free” by Sia, another powerhouse piece with a message of setting oneself free and the joy that comes with liberation from dark thoughts.

Before singing, Collins explained why she wanted to sing that song in particular, hoping it would serve to liberate those who listened to it.

“This is an important song to sing because we feel like birds in cages,” Collins prefaced. “But through music and the arts, we can still soar.”

As the music played, Collins sang words about wanting to be free and not caring about the cost, her voice perfectly hitting the highest of notes to sell the excitement and validation of freedom. Smiles adorned the faces of all who watched Collins sing, as though their hearts were given wings as she sang sweet melodies.

Once all the performances finished, there was a quick question-and-answer session with Zak Sandler. The question he felt stood out the most was why mental health matters to him and why he wrote “Inside My Head.”

“Part of it is that… I didn’t know a whole lot about bipolar disorder when I got to college,” Sandler said, a slight chuckle escaping his lips. “I didn’t know how serious it was until now. I could have saved myself a fairly traumatic trip to the hospital.”

Gagliano was also asked the same question and reasoned that mental health was a topic everyone should care about.

“For me, it runs in my family, and I think it’s something everyone struggles with at some point,” Gagliano shared. “It’s so hard right now with everything going on, everyone’s feeling it. I think it’s often overlooked and I think we should take it seriously.”

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