Life is not a cabaret in buttoned-down Washington. Or is it?
The show tune and its close cousins may be making more inroads around town than you’d guess. More than ever, it’s possible to find singers — most of them with theater roots — crooning Broadway tunes or mashing up standards and pop hits in that casual, intimate brand of performance known as cabaret.
Two major venues have been making the most noise: One is the Kennedy Center, where a series named after Broadway great Barbara Cook just wrapped up its sixth season in the Terrace Theater with a two-night stand by the ageless Cook herself. The other is Signature Theatre, currently in the midst of its Sizzlin’ Summer Cabaret, showcasing more than 16 acts in its 100-seat Ark Theater through July 28.
You can follow the bouncing ball beyond those theaters, though, through what seems like a newly established, permanent floating . . . not crap game, as Nathan Detroit and the “Guys and Dolls” guys sang, but cabaret scene.
This week, for instance, singer Delores Williams and pianist Howard Breitbart performed just north of Dupont Circle at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, which has a standing event it bills as “Maggie’s Cabaret.”
The same night — Wednesday — Arena Stage opened up its Piano Bar around 10 p.m. The troupe instituted the irregular (five or six times a year) feature last year, and apparently it has taken root this season. Local actor Joshua Morgan plays piano, and people — with or without tickets to mainstage shows “The Music Man” and “The Normal Heart” — gather and sing. “Music Man” star Kate Baldwin was scheduled to offer up a number or two.
Monday night at the tony Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Bar, TheatreWashington hosted its once-a-month Show Tunes and Cocktails. Beaming Broadway buffs surrounded Glenn Pearson at the piano, some holding lyric booklets printed up for these occasions (Arena provides the same sort of thing), and others with their faces illuminated as they cribbed lyrics from iPads and smartphones.
Recent Helen Hayes winner Matthew Delorenzo (“Pop!” at Studio Theatre Second Stage) eventually took over, singing “Till There Was You” from “The Music Man” way up high in Shirley Jones’s key.
Piano bars do not a cabaret world make, of course, and Washington is still a long way off from Manhattan’s bevy of nightclubs and supper clubs.
“I’d love to have a cabaret scene evolve here in Washington,” says singer Sandy Bainum, whose “Something to Sing About” is part of Signature’s series.
Signature Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner, who runs the series, agrees that there is more energy in the area lately. (It includes the current FourthWall Cabaret slate at Creative Cauldron in Falls Church.) But he adds that in a lot of cases, performers are getting their acts together on a “find your own venue” basis. The DC Cabaret Network held its latest open mike event Wednesday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, but the group is still flying so low under the radar as to be nearly invisible.
The real moxie has come from the Kennedy Center and Signature, both of which seem bent on trotting out as much musical theater talent as they can muster. Broadway vets such as Betty Buckley, Victoria Clark and Laura Benanti have been the cornerstone of the Barbara Cook series, but it’s been a sweet spot for surprising first-timers, too. Alexander Gemignani, son of frequent Stephen Sondheim musical director Paul Gemignani, made his cabaret debut there. So did the spectacularly entertaining Jane Krakowski of “30 Rock.”
Max Woodward, Kennedy Center vice president of theater programming, says the series is in solid shape and that this coming season, for the first time, fans will be able to subscribe to the entire slate.
Signature also showcases out-of-town talent, with New Yorker Carrie Manolakos and San Francisco’s Cory Jamison rounding out this month’s schedule. But most of the roster is drawn from Signature’s stages, with some performers recruited by Gardiner to whip up an act and trot out front. The closing show is given over to the troupe’s peppy extras in “Revenge of the Understudies.”
Will Gartshore, a frequent leading man in the troupe’s musicals, says he gradually came around to the cabaret format. “You get to be the creative driver of it,” says Gartshore, who recently sang at the Round House Theatre’s Silver Spring space; his “Underappreciated and Overexposed” is on Signature’s bill this weekend. “It’s a little looser, a little bit off the cuff. . . . I enjoy a good concert, but there is something about watching someone who comes at a song from an acting standpoint, as a storyteller. That’s why so much cabaret is based on theatrical music.”
“You’re your own everything — producer and performer,” says another Signature regular, Stephen Gregory Smith. “It can be so fulfilling, if you let it be. It can also be the least satisfying, because if it fails, you’re to blame.”
Smith recalls an act he devised where a concept and budget concerns got the better of him, and he ended up doing his show in pajamas, singing to karaoke tracks. “The weirdest thing ever,” says Smith, who, like Gartshore, strays from show tunes and standards to raid the pop and rock catalogues.
Cabaret’s challenges include brief gigs — typically one-nighters here — with modest fees split between singers and accompanists or backup combos. Bainum, who this year has performed more than a dozen times (using three different acts) in New York, says, “It’s not for the weak of spirit or mind.”
Gartshore makes a distinction between musical theater performers and focused Manhattan cabaret artists such as Michael Feinstein and John Pizzarelli, jazz-and-standards musicians whose audiences probably aren’t plugged in to the latest Broadway cast CDs. “You might need a couple guys like that to build something here on a regular basis,” Gartshore suggests.
Bainum doesn’t want to wait. “Let’s find one of these rooms where you’re doing cocktails anyway and create a really sweet environment,” she says. “We’ve got people in this town who can blow audiences away.”
Through July 28 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington.
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