Saturday, December 26, 2009

Life is a Cabaret, Part 1

[Being the first in a series of entries chronicling the development of my cabaret show Just a Song at Twilight - The Golden Age of Vaudeville. These are companion pieces to Andrea Braun's Talking Cabaret with Chuck Lavazzi blogs at the web site for The Vital Voice. Performances are March 26 and 27, 2010; tickets at]

The answer to the question “How did you get started on a solo cabaret act?” is very similar to the answer to the question “How did you get started on drugs?”

“I forget, man.”

No, just kidding. Actually, it’s “little by little, and now it’s too late to turn back.”

The whole thing began with an afternoon session at the 2007 St. Louis Cabaret Conference – the four-day professional workshop on cabaret and musical theatre performance that Tim Schall has been producing since 2006. The session was on “building a show”. As an exercise, we were asked to outline a show that we might like to do, paying attention to material selection, flow and the like.

The show I started to put together back then – “Celluloid Heroes: Portraits in Reel Life” – might still see the light of day. But after working at it for the better part of a year, I realized two things:

1) I wasn’t really all that passionate about that particular idea

2) This is a LOT harder than it looks.

What started me thinking about this show was a comment from my producer, Jim Dolan (of The Presenters Dolan) after the Alumni Showcase for the 2008 Cabaret Conference. The song I had chosen for the showcase was “Take Your Girlie to the Movies”, a minor vaudeville comedy number from 1919. The reception was remarkably warm, given the age and obscurity of the song, and Jim suggested that I should consider putting together a show vaudeville-era comedy and novelty songs. Webster Conservatory faculty member Neal Richardson, who acted as music director for the performance, had already said that he shared my fondness for early 20th-century popular songs and would be interested in acting as music director should I decide to go that route.

Clearly, the Cabaret Gods were trying to make Their will known.

I was up to my eyeballs in acting opportunities at the time, though, so I filed the idea away under “something to think about when I’m not rehearsing two shows at the same time”. In the spring of 2009, between Metro Theatre Company’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the revival of the NonProphet Theatre Company’s Corleone, I had a few months to revisit the idea, and it began to take hold.

I ran some of the song ideas by Tim Schall, my vocal coach, and he was as enthusiastic. The die, finally, had been cast, and I began tackling the first big question: where the heck was I going to find all that 100-year-old sheet music?

The answer proved to be simpler than I had thought.

To be continued...

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sacred Cow

Every performing arts organization has its cash cow for the Christamas / Hannukah / Kwanzaa / Festivus / [Insert celebration here] season. Like any well-bred bovine, they hope it will generate enough money milk to help underwrite the coming season, when audiences may be less inclined to open up their pocketbooks.

For theatre groups it’s often a dramatization of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Opera companies tend to rely on Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, symphony orchestras on Handel’s Messiah and dance companies on Tchaikovsky’s 1892 bon-bon, The Nutcracker.

From 1989 through 2001 the biggest Nutcracker here in St. Louis was the one hosted by the Fox Theatre. It originally featured the State Ballet of Missouri (now Kansas City Ballet) and then (from 1997 to 2001) Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. In 2007 the Fox and Dance St. Louis brought The Nutcracker back with a bang in the form of the 1987 Joffrey Ballet production.

It’s back again this year, complete with 170 young St. Louis-area singers and dancers to complement the Joffrey artists. And once again visions of sugar plums - to say nothing of flowers, snowflakes, and mice – are dancing merrily in our heads.

The Joffrey production is everything you might expect from a world-renowned company. Designed and (with the exception of the “Land of Snow” and “Waltz of the Flowers” sequences) choreographed by the company’s late founder Robert Joffrey, the production is of the traditional “story book” variety inspired by the Russian original, the 1940 Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo version, and Joffrey’s own collection of collection of antique toys and Christmas cards. It’s visually stunning – a late 19th-century print come to life, complete with dancing dolls and a 15-foot-tall Mother Ginger.

It was also, some roughness in the winds not withstanding, a pleasure to hear thanks to generally solid playing by the Ballet Orchestra of St. Louis. The Fox so often plays host to touring shows with reduced pit bands that it was a treat to hear something close to a full orchestra in that space.

All the elements you’d want in a polished Nutcracker were present when we saw the show on Saturday afternoon, including spectacular dancing by the principals and precision work by the ensemble and the various specialty turns in Act II. I was particularly taken with Fabrice Calmels and the astonishingly flexible Kara Zimmerman in the sinuous Arabian “coffee” duo as well as by Megan Qurioz and Temur Suluashvili as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince. Erica Lynnette Edwards was a standout as a whirling Russian nougat and Calvin Kitten impressed with his gravity-defying leaps in the Chinese dance.

Let me note that while the Act II set pieces tend to attract the most attention in Nutcracker, words of praise are also owed to the remarkable precision with which this company executed the “social dances’” sequence in Act I. Working in full Victorian costume on a reduced set, they flew through the complex contradance-inspired choreography with deceptive ease.

The entire cast, in short, deserves a hearty “bravi”. The ten-year-old princess in our party pronounced the production “awesome”. Who am I to disagree?

The Joffrey Nutcracker is an annual event in Chicago. Let’s hope it will continue be one here as well. Some things are traditional for good reasons. The Nutcracker speaks, ultimately, to the happy child in all of us. That’s someone we need to remember at this time of the year, especially with so many dark political and economic clouds on the horizon.

Upcoming Dance St. Louis events include the Ballet Folklórico De México in January, Chicago’s River North Dance Company in February, Aszure Barton and Artists in March and the Moscow Festival Ballet in April. Visit the web site at for more information or call 314-534-6622.