Columbia’s Cabaret Scene
By August Krickel
Theatre people like to perform. They also like to socialize, sometimes with a cold beverage in hand. Cast parties often evolve into spontaneous performances of favorites from the top 40 or from Broadway. More and more, local theatres are finding a way to formalize this trend by presenting cabaret performances featuring some of the best voices in town.
“Cabaret” generally refers to a small club with both alcohol and live entertainment available. The word conjures images of Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge, or Liza Minelli as Sally at Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub. For a production of the Off-Broadway hit revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in the early ’90′s, Trustus Theatre temporarily removed their familiar armchairs, and instead audience members sat at cozy little candle-lit tables, as if they were in a nightclub in Paris. Revues featuring local actors in a similar cabaret setting were also presented in the CMFA ArtSpace and these evolved into the Torch cabaret series, now in its 11th year as an annual fundraiser for PALSS (Palmetto Aids Life Support Services.) Under Randy Moore’s musical direction, performers including Kevin Bush, Laurel Posey, Linda Posey Collins, Kyle Collins, Matthew DeGuire, Chip Stubbs, Mandy Applegate, and Robin Gottlieb come together to perform music from Broadway and beyond. “It’s just the audience, the piano and singers delivering musical stories that inspire and entertain,” says Bush. “There’s an understood mission each year that we will choose songs that are mirror the mission of the organization — songs that uplift, educate, express compassion and, mostly, celebrate life. For me, it’s been a great blessing, as it’s given me a chance to work on my own craft and be inspired by what the other performers do.”
Bush is one of the area’s most visible cabaret performers. After performing in The Full Monty at Workshop Theatre, he recalls how the cast “had forged a tight, laugh-filled friendship that seemed akin to the bond shared by the Rat Pack” (i.e. the swinging 1960′s group of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and their friends.) Jason Stokes organized a cabaret fundraiser for Workshop “as a tribute to the style of the Rat Pack act, (although) no one played a particular role;” the friends revived the act a few years later at Trustus, with “just our pianist and a well-stocked bar.” Bush was then approached by the Columbia Museum of Art to stage two cabaret shows “loosely tied in with exhibits they were running.” The first in November 2009 was titled “Evolution: 21st Century Songbook,” and Bush sang with accompanist Tom Beard, adding Vicky Saye Henderson the next year for “The Language of Love.” Henderson joined Bush again in the summer of 2013 for “Off the Top of My Head,” this time a fundraiser for Trustus with Andy Bell as musical director, and appearances by guest artists including Stokes, Terrance Henderson, and Bush’s brother Eddie. “I was the main organizer regarding theme, song choice and guest performers,” Bush explains. “I think our audiences appreciate cabaret as a chance to very simply enjoy the pure art of a good singer delivering a good song, not just technically but with really clear intention. It’s a chance to experience the essence of what a songwriter has created, and understand it through the interpretation of the singer and musicians. I can say personally that having that experience of a skilled singer guiding me through the nuances of a song, with me hanging on every lyric to get to its resolution, is pretty addictive. One good catharsis always calls for another.” Bush is currently “working on research and song selection for a show I am planning to do at Trustus based around the music of Joni Mitchell — working title: The Book of Joni.”
Frank Thompson introduced this same idea to Town Theatre in early 2013 with a fundraiser simply billed as “Cabaret Night.” Five women were featured: Shannon Willis Scruggs, Abigail Ludwig, Kathy Hartzog, Vicky Saye Henderson, and Tracey Davenport, with Andy Wells as musical director and accompanist. Henderson performed jazz standards including “Stuff Like That There” and “When Sunny Gets Blue,” and Ludwig sang “I Wanna Be Loved By You” in the style of Marilyn Monroe. The event’s success led to a second cabaret show that summer called “Love and Marriage,” with Thompson performing “Lily’s Eyes” from Secret Garden with Andy Nyland, and “You’re Not Sick, You’re Just in Love” from Call Me Madam with Catherine Hunsinger. Other participants included Nancy Ann Smith, Jamie Carr Harrington, Bill DeWitt, and Parker Byun, who sang “On the Street Where You Live,” from My Fair Lady. Patrons sat around small tables placed on the theatre’s stage to achieve the intimate cabaret feel, and enjoyed wine, dessert and coffee. The initial goal was to sell 50 tickets, but this was expanded to 100, and tickets have been modestly priced in the $10-15 range; run time is around 90 minutes. A third installment entitled “Town Theatre Cabaret” was presented at the Kershaw Fine Arts Center later that year. Thompson notes that “It’s alternative programming: more affordable, easier to rehearse, and they have a texture all their own. They have allowed people who can’t commit nine weeks for a show to participate. Usually, there are three rehearsals, and one or two performances.”
Thompson now has expanded this concept into the “Evening With…” series, where a popular actor chooses numbers from his or her career, and guest artists they want to include. Scruggs was spotlighted first, and her friends jokingly called the evening “Shannon: The Musical.” She and Thompson dueted on “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” which Thompson quips “speaks to our relationship on so many levels,” explaining that both are driven and competitive. “Oh, be sure to put that in,” he insists. Scruggs and long-time friend Rebecca Seezen performed “Tomorrow,” and shared memories with the audience about having been little girls together in a production of Annie in the 1980′s. Thompson will take center stage next, planning for his event in March to emulate vintage Dean Martin celebrity roasts, with him as the willing victim. Comedy will alternate with musical numbers, and he notes that “nothing will go on too long before something else starts.” What will he be singing? “Probably the blues, before it’s over,” he replies with a grin. “Our audience is very invested in the actors, and it’s nice to break the wall and allow an opportunity to see the person inside, and what they are really like.” He plans for future evenings to focus on Hartzog, DeWitt, and Rob Sprankle.
Daniel Gainey says that the Late Night Cabaret Series at Workshop Theatre began “as a way for the cast of a currently running show to celebrate on a closing night. As each production became more elaborate and more people became involved, the series detached itself from a closing night event and became a stand-alone production. At its height, there was a late night cabaret happening every month or so.” Presented in the quaint courtyard in Workshop’s former space, these shows initially featured Gainey as accompanist. “But I loved the concept so much, I asked for the chance to design one,” he recalls. “We did a full-on, two-hour late night performance complete with a miniature musical called ‘Scarlet Takes a Tumble.’ It was crazy, it was wonderful, it was great. My goal was to get as many people on stage as possible and to bring as music new music to Columbia as possible. I love this town, but in terms of musical theater, you don’t get much ‘new’ or ‘unknown’ stuff. And it makes sense. Musicals are extremely expensive, and mounting a full production of a musical that no one knows is just insanity. But, you can do a couple numbers at a cabaret, and get people interested in something new.” Non-musical comedy shows were also presented, including the Craigslist Cabaret. “We would troll Craigslist looking for the most depraved and debauched postings. Then actors would read the posts with all their theatrical prowess. The audience would then vote for their favorite.” Gainey’s main goal, however, was “to give Columbia a chance to play. And by Columbia, I mean the theatre folks and their audience. The costs were bare, the tickets were cheap, and the reward was an exciting exchange over the footlights. Set-up was minimal, and rehearsals were stolen time over coffee and keyboards. We could take big risks. We staged a reading of Christopher Durang’s ‘Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge’ that was wildly successful as a late night event, but probably wouldn’t make a successful run as a main stage event. More than anything, the cabaret format allows you to take risks.”
Last July, Trustus Managing Director Larry Hembree announced a significant commitment by the theatre to produce cabaret performances: in 2015, the existing Trustus bar and gallery area will receive a major overhaul, becoming a piano bar called Marv’s, named for long-time Trustus supporter Marvin Chernoff. The goal is to create an intimate club-like atmosphere where theatre-goers and community members can socialize before and after shows, as well as on nights when no show is running. Also, beginning in January, Villa Tronco will feature a cabaret night featuring different singing duos, performing a selection of songs from musical theatre.
With name-brand singers known for delivering show-stoppers on stage now transitioning into performing live in smaller venues, cabaret is clearly here to stay. As Kander and Ebb wrote,
“what good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play – life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret.”