Chicago cabaret takes a bow
October 18, 2011
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It was like the Oscars of Chicago cabaret – an evening packed with glamour, art and verbal effusions.
Yet Chicago's indefatigable cabaret community surely deserved a night in which to celebrate itself. During the other 364 evenings of the year, the city's singers and pianists toil for pennies in rooms that the average GPS would have difficulty locating.
On Sunday evening, the artists gathered at a more high-profile location, the Park West, for the Chicago Cabaret Professionals 13th Annual Gala, "You and the Night and the Music." And for three hours-plus, a parade of lavishly gowned women and handsomely tuxedoed men strode onto the stage to deliver songs, speeches, awards, speeches, comedy bits and, oh yes, speeches.
The generally high level of performance made the patter quite bearable, and who can blame the cabaret folk for clinging a bit to the microphone when it came time to say a few words? These hard-working performers get precious little acclaim in our pop-culture world, which is why they created this show in the first place.
Former Chicagoan Ann Hampton Callaway, who long has lived in New York, flew in to collect one of the evening's three cabaret awards, and she thanked her audience in several soliloquies and, better still, with music. A singer-pianist who has matured deeply over the years, Callaway delivered Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen's "Blues in the Night" with about as much swagger and sizzle as the tune could hold.
Her high-registers cries, crushed-velvet low notes and coloratura vocal embellishments made a blues aria of the piece. Yes, it was a stylized brand of blues – more polished than gritty – but brilliantly effective, nonetheless.
Then again, Callaway's well-worn parlor trick of creating a song on the spot – using lyrics suggested by the audience – proved the most tiresome part of her set. The ability to spontaneously write a bad song no doubt wins cheers at well-lubricated, late-night cocktail parties but probably should not be displayed in public.
Yet when Callaway stepped to the front of the stage for an a cappella version of – brace yourself – "Over the Rainbow," all was forgiven (almost). It takes a certain amount of guts to take on Judy Garland's personal anthem and perform it, at this late date, without so much as a note of accompaniment. Callaway's version showed musical invention and interpretive vulnerability and, quite naturally, elicited a hefty ovation.
Veteran Chicago saloon singer Jimmy Damon also picked up a trophy and similarly embraced his fans with song. The opening medley of "Chicago" and "My Kind of Town" may have been a bit predictable, but if a man who has been crooning in this city for roughly half a century can't indulge in a little musical boosterism, who can?
Damon's performances of "The Way You Look Tonight" and "My Way" paid homage to the singer who most profoundly influenced him (and plenty others), Frank Sinatra. Though Damon looked a bit thin and sounded somewhat raspy in certain passages, he still sent the big notes to the back row.
Former Chicago cultural commissioner Lois Weisberg also took an award, which recognized her championing of cabaret when she was in office. But Weisberg didn't sing – not with music, nor about her spat with former mayor Richard Daley, which led her to quit her job in January.
Earlier in the evening, several veteran and emerging artists attested to the depth of cabaret talent in this city. Beckie Menzie and Tom Michael produced a sensual, jazz-tinged "You and the Night and the Music," matching pitch and phrase as only a long-standing duo can; Hilary Ann Feldman offered a tour de force of jazz, cabaret and opera singing in the comic "The Girl in 14G"; Suzanne Petri and Anne and Mark Burnell harmonized sumptuously in "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen"; Denise Tomasello nimbly threw off Jacques Brel's "Carousel"; and Laura Freeman showed vast imagination in the story-song "Meadowlark."
Now that's cabaret.
Copyright © 2011, Chicago Tribune
Chicago cabaret sings praises of Jimmy Damon
10:16 a.m. CDT, October 13, 2011
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Listening to him gently swing a tune, you might never guess that Jimmy Damon grew up in Memphis in the shadow of a young Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, who frequented his father's restaurant.
But ever since Damon left his hometown and landed in Chicago, in the mid-1960s, he has become something of a fixture here, an embodiment of the kind of saloon singer that hardly exists anymore. Hotel lounges and Gold Coast boites, convention gatherings and charity dinners — Damon has sung them all, prolifically, for roughly half a century.
Which is why it's thoroughly appropriate that this weekend Damon will be one of three honorees at the most glittering cabaret event of the year: the Chicago Cabaret Professionals 13th Annual Gala, at Park West on Sunday evening. A long list of Chicago musicians will take the stage in this marathon performance, with awards going to former Chicago singer Ann Hampton Callaway, former culture commissioner Lois Weisberg and very current Chicagoan Damon.
"It's probably one of the highest honors I've received in my career, to get this from where I've spent my adult life — Chicago," says Damon.
"Musically it's been a great place for me to learn how to sing. …
"What I learned here was how to separate myself from the rest of the acts – how to be Jimmy Damon, not some other creep."
Being Jimmy Damon means singing classic American songs closely identified with his musical hero, Frank Sinatra, in a manner distinctly his own. The warmth of Damon's baritone and the ease of his approach to swing rhythm have endeared generations of listeners to him.
True, Damon sometimes can push a bit hard in making contact with the audience. If it's true that Bill Murray modeled his old "Saturday Night Live" lounge-lizard caricature partly on Damon, as some have observed, it's not difficult to see where Murray drew some of his inspiration. Damon surely works the room.
But even that exaggerated portrait from Murray — who during his Second City years often dropped in on Damon shows at the long-gone Cousin's Club, on East Superior Street – can be considered a kind of affectionate tribute to a performer who generates much admiration.
"He's a magical performer," says Carla Gordon, a Chicago Cabaret Professionals member who will be presenting Damon his award.
"I'm tempted to say in my speech that he's entertained for every mayor since Anton Cermak," jokes Gordon, with just a bit of hyperbole. "(Mayor) Harold Washington said he's one of the forces that makes Chicago a swingin' town.
"He comes on the stage, and he brings that love."
Not that the journey has been easy. Though Damon worked busily during the'70s and '80s, hotels eventually cut back on live entertainment, while spots such as Mister Kelly's, the Playboy Club and the showrooms of the Fairmont Hotel have long since vanished.
"There's not always a paycheck on Fridays in this business," says Damon. "There have been ups and downs….
"I only sing for a living — I don't have (another) job. This is a total commitment.
"But I've been able to afford having my family, sending my kids to college.
"I've been exploring my dream, and it's been a beautiful thing."
For his listeners, as well as for him.
firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright © 2011, Chicago Tribune
Can't stress enough: Menzie worthy
October 15, 2010
By Howard Reich | Arts critic
When Chicago singer-pianist Beckie Menzie strides onto the stage of the Park West on Sunday night — to accept an award from the city's leading cabaret organization — she'll be marking more than just a career triumph.
Sure, Menzie is "tickled" to be receiving the Gold Coast Award presented by Chicago Cabaret Professionals at their annual gala concert (the group also will present honors that evening to veteran performers Andrea Marcovicci and Denise Tomasello).
But considering what has happened to Menzie in recent years — and the graceful and heroic ways she has responded — Menzie's moment in the spotlight will mark a personal triumph as well.
In devastating succession, Menzie suffered the deaths of her best friend, theater director Roy Hine, in November of 2007; her husband, Earl Moshinsky, in June of 2009; and her mother in January of 2010.
The accumulated stress caused "a severe case of plaque psoriasis," says Menzie. The disease raced across the surface of her skin and onto "my ears, my scalp — I lost hair," she adds.
"My friends were thinking I was going to die. Actually, I had no death wish, but my body was so covered … totally inflamed."
During the past 22 years, Menzie has become a beloved and indispensable figure in Chicago cabaret, so her anguish became a source of pain for just about everyone in the city's tightly knit cabaret landscape.
"I wondered how anybody who had been through that much stress, how anybody could get through it," says singer Tom Michael, who has performed regularly in a duo with Menzie for a decade.
"I think music got her through that."
Not that it was easy. It wasn't until just last July, says Menzie, that she started to believe that "it was all going to be OK."
Some potent drugs had turned the tide on Menzie's psoriasis, she says, and the waves of support she received from her many admirers in Chicago cabaret encouraged her to forge ahead.
And then there was the healing effect of her own work.
"The music, the jobs gave me a purpose, and I could not think about fear," says Menzie. "Music, for me, never was about control or fear. It was always about trusting my soul — that's the one place I wasn't afraid."
Now, says Menzie, "I feel like the mark of death is off me. I don't look like a victim. I look like a person of joy."
That spirit also pervades Menzie's art, which pairs uncommonly sensitive vocal lines with a sweeping, sumptuous approach to the keyboard. Menzie's gifts have made her one of the busiest accompanists in the city, the musician constantly juggling an array of engagements. Thanks to her contributions, the Monday night open-mic shows at Petterino's, various music-theater classes at Northwestern University and a long list of Chicago vocalists — most notably Michael — sound that much better.
"When she plays the piano, it's like an orchestra," says Michael. "When we've had larger gigs, they've asked us to bring in a bass player, bring in a drummer.
"But we find sometimes that gets in the way. All we need is her on the piano.
"I much prefer to sing with Beckie over singing myself," says Michael, in perhaps the ultimate accolade one vocalist can give another.
"My voice feels complete when Beckie's beside me."
That is a widespread sentiment, as Sunday night's award presentation confirms.
Congratulations, Beckie — you deserve it.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz visit chicagotribune.com/reich.
Chicago Cabaret Professionals Gala
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave.
Price: $27-$50; 312-409-3106 or chicagocabaret.org
Howard Reich Arts critic
October 13, 2009
Celebrating cabaret You might call it the Academy Awards of Chicago cabaret: Dozens of performers and hundreds of their admirers converged Sunday night on the Park West for the biggest show of the cabaret season. The annual Chicago Cabaret Professionals Gala offered three hours of music, awards, speeches and sequins. Among the award winners, former Chicagoan Karen Mason sang a jazzy "My Kind of Town"; singer Suzanne Petri mixed nostalgia and hope in the autumnal "Here's to Life"; and singer-pianist Bob Moreen reminded listeners why he's one of the most adroit one-man bands in the city.
Beyond the honorees, one had to marvel at the evening's range of talent. Beckie Menzie and Tom Michael duetted poetically in "Somewhere"; Joan Curto poured plenty of ardor into "Blues in the Night"; and Anne and Mark Burnell proved you don't need a piano when you sing a cappella this well.
Music's masters meet on Monday
By Howard Reich
Chicago Tribune critic
July 16 2008
By now, capacity audiences have become the norm for the "Musical Mondays" cabaret series at Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place.
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Drury Lane in full bloom
Cabaret celebration of Clooney dazzles
By Howard Reich
May 21, 2008
With the performers in fine voice and the repertoire top-notch, it was a very good night for cabaret in Chicago...
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Drury Lane brings jazz, cabaret back into vogue
By Howard Reich
February 17, 2008
Tony Bennett attracted throngs. Ella Fitzgerald swung like crazy. Pearl Bailey shook the room with a voice so huge you almost could hear it on Michigan Avenue.
But since 1984, Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place has been silent -- at least so far as concerts are concerned. When the legendary Chicago impresario Tony De Santis closed his opulent theater, which had been operating since the summer of 1976, it appeared as if one of the most glamorous rooms in local music would be consigned to the history books, once and for all.
The sacred space that jazz giants such as Louie Bellson, Lena Horne and Buddy Rich had graced would feature living, breathing art no more. Instead, the theater was reconfigured to show movies. Even Drury Lane's high-profile reopening in remodeled quarters, in 2005, heralded the return of live theater to the celebrated address but made no room for jazz and cabaret.
Come Monday evening, Drury Lane and a dynamic non-profit arts group -- Chicago Cabaret Professionals -- will partner to bring live music back to 175 E. Chestnut St., half a block from the bustle of North Michigan Avenue. Though the sprawling revue "My Fair Cabaret: The Music of Loesser, Lerner and Loewe" (with a cast of about 20 performers) will play just one night, it's poised to launch a new concert era at Drury Lane.
If all goes as planned, a forthcoming series of "Musical Mondays on the Magnificent Mile" will bring various cabaret shows to the theater, with appearances by local and visiting solo musicians possibly in the offing, as well, say Drury Lane officials. And though musical plays, such as the current "Altar Boyz," will remain the central attraction at Drury Lane, concerts are on the horizon.
"I think it's something that would be great to have in this neighborhood," explains Kyle De Santis, Tony De Santis' grandson and now president of Drury Lane theaters at Water Tower Place and suburban Oakbrook Terrace (Tony De Santis died last year at age 93).
"It's uncharted territory for us," adds De Santis, referring to the theater's post-2005 incarnation, "but I'm hoping that it's successful, so that we can continue on in this direction.
"It's a nice location."
That's an understatement, for Drury Lane sits at the crossroads of high-end shopping, dining and tourism, a milieu rich in upscale listeners who would seem inclined to favor cabaret and jazz in an elegant setting.
A virtual vacuum
The surprise, in fact, is that the 60611 ZIP code practically has been stripped of live concerts and jazz sets (though piano-lounge fare and other forms of background music are in abundance). The 1997 demise of the Gold Star Sardine Bar, at 680 N. Lake Shore Drive; the 2006 close of the Jazz Showcase, at 59 W. Grand Ave., in preparation for its move to the South Loop; and last year's flight of singer-pianist Judy Roberts to Arizona, after engagements along North Michigan Avenue began to dry up, diminished a music that long had made the neighborhood hum.
Drury Lane enjoyed a comparatively long run -- roughly eight years -- offering live concerts (as well as straight plays and stage musicals) in an in-the-round theater that seated 1,142 but felt much smaller.
"It was very exciting, it was glamorous, it was romantic," recalls Debbie Silverman Krolik, who as Drury Lane publicist during most of those years shepherded the illustrious names around town (she has no connection to Drury Lane today).
"The excitement on opening night was almost overwhelming -- it was just a big deal to have these major names right here in the neighborhood. ...
"Pearl [Bailey] would be in her dressing room often times, embroidering, before she went on stage. Tony [Bennett] would be coming back from the Italian restaurant across the street, where he had dinner. ...
"And then these legendary performers, who I remembered watching on the 'Ed Sullivan Show,' would be performing just a few feet away from you in that intimate theater. ...
"Even the dressing rooms were absolutely magnificent -- they were gorgeous."
Everything about Drury Lane, from its gold-leaf wall-trim and red velour seats to its crystal chandelier glittering high above a winding staircase, exuded luxury and romance (albeit in some excess). But the steep rent, as well as a hot-and-cold box office, in 1984 prompted De Santis to abandon the place for another Drury Lane he built in Oakbrook Terrace.
And no one has had the nerve or the cash to try anything comparable on or near the Magnificent Mile ever since.
So why now?
"It's something I've had in the back of my mind for a long time," says Jim Jensen, co-producer at Drury Lane.
"Kyle [De Santis] had been talking about doing concerts and music events. I mentioned Chicago Cabaret Professionals to him, and he liked the idea."
Indeed, a partnership between Drury Lane and CCP hardly could have been better timed. The era when performers of Bennett's stature played rooms the size of Drury Lane -- which, in its new proscenium format seats just 500-plus -- has long since passed.
The biggest jazz, cabaret and classic-pop stars can earn seven figures or more playing for thousands at immense concert venues, such as the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park.
So Drury Lane needed to adjust its ambitions for modern times.
Chicago Cabaret Professionals, meanwhile, has been growing steadily since it was founded, in 1998, as an advocacy group. Since attaining 501(c)3 non-profit status in 2002, it has staged artistically striking, sold-out cabaret extravaganzas at Park West in 2006 and 2007.
But for all its successes in championing cabaret across the city, in spaces such as the Chicago Cultural Center and Davenport's, the organization yearned to set up shop in a big-time, high-visibility spot.
Potential new audience
The "My Fair Cabaret" show and those to follow could help both CCP and the fragile art form it represents to bloom anew.
"This opens up cabaret to a huge new pool of audience members," says Heather Moran, another noted Chicago cabaret singer and a CCP member.
In essence, cabaret -- like jazz -- is expanding its field of opportunities by embracing non-profit economic models. What once was a purely commercial enterprise that functioned mostly in saloons and hotel lobbies is finding new life through not-for-profit organizations and the cultural grants they can attract.
Optimism is palpable
So the latest chapter in the development of Chicago cabaret will open tomorrow. But the briskness of advance ticket sales, as well as the ambitiousness of the show -- which will feature such Chicago cabaret stars as Joan Curto and Tom Michael -- has generated palpable optimism among Chicago musicians.
If the venture succeeds, the texture of Chicago's musical life, as well as the rhythms of its most high-toned neighborhood, will be changed.
"There is a hunger for this kind of music, but there have been no real venues for it downtown," says Silverman Krolik.
"If you are going out and want to have a romantic evening, are you going to listen to Amy Winehouse singing 'Rehab'?
"There's a desire for something else, and I think that if it is placed on the table, people would come and eat it up."
We'll find out soon enough.
- - -
Mondays get musical
"My Fair Cabaret: The Music of Loesser, Lerner and Loewe" will present one act each devoted to the music of Frank Loesser, and to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Singers will include Joan Curto, Tom Michael, Heather Moran, Daryl Nitz and Suzanne Petri, with musical direction by Beckie Menzie and Bob Moreen. Performance starts at 7:30 p.m. at Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St.; $25; 312-642-2000 or ticketmaster.com.
Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune
New Drury Lane: Night life is a cabaret
New Drury Lane: Night life is a cabaret
By Howard Reich
February 20, 2008
If live music returned to a celebrated downtown theater -- after an absence of 24 years -- would anyone show up?
That was the question Monday night, when a room that once pulsed with the sounds of Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald made music once more. But with the temperature frozen at single digits and a new concert series trying to get off the (slippery) ground, presenters at Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place wondered if the house would be half empty, or worse.
They needn't have worried -- the place practically was filled. Indeed, had the weather been less hostile, extra chairs would have been needed (lobby seating, anyone?).
Clearly, Chicagoans voted with their ears on this night, which proved a milestone not only for the refurbished Drury Lane but, better still, for Chicago's growing community of cabaret performers. Produced by Chicago Cabaret Professionals, an aptly named advocacy group, the evening attested to the depth of the city's cabaret talent and its increasing savvy in promoting itself.
No longer content to stage just one-man (or one-woman) shows for small audiences in tiny rooms, cabaret artists in the past few years have banded together, presenting ambitious evenings in impressive spaces.
None of these efforts has been riskier or higher in profile than Monday's, titled "My Fair Cabaret: The Music of Loesser, Lerner and Loewe." Though Drury Lane had featured major jazz and cabaret stars in the late 1970s and early '80s, "My Fair Cabaret" had no such marquee power. Moreover, it has been more than a generation since listeners were in the habit of hearing music at Drury Lane, which started showing movies in 1984 and re-emerged as a legitimate theater in 2005.
For this listener's tastes, the remodeled Drury Lane serves music better than it did before, as an in-the-round space. When you're beholding a great singer at work, do you really want to see the galoshes of the people facing you, from the other side of the room? The new proscenium focuses attention where it belongs -- on the artists.
How and why Joan Curto came up with the idea of dispatching "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" in a jazz context is a bit of a mystery. Yet it worked. Stripped of cockney cliches, slowed to a crawl, swathed in blues expression, the song sounded reborn.
Baritone David Edelfelt probably sounds great singing the weather forecast, he's just blessed with a luxuriant instrument. But his version of "Luck Be a Lady" produced low notes that you could get lost in.
Tom Michael implied swing rhythm in "I Hear Music"; and Heather Moran let loose with plenty of sound in "Adelaide's Lament."
If Claudia Hommel overplayed the drama in music from "My Fair Lady" and Bradford Thacker borrowed from Maurice Chevalier in songs from "Gigi," there was consolation in Laura Freeman's heady performance of "The Night They Invented Champagne."
Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune
Cabaret tour de force
Sultriness reminiscent of bygone era rules stage
By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
October 16, 2007
Anyone who doubted the depth or breadth of Chicago's cabaret scene should have tried to snatch a ticket to the Park West on Sunday night.
Playing before a packed house, performers funny and dark, witty and wistful, high-strung and laid-back offered a marathon tour of the cabaret singer's art. That only a small segment of this city's cabaret community could be squeezed onto the three-hour program said a great deal about the vitality of this music in Chicago.
The occasion was the annual gala organized by Chicago Cabaret Professionals, an organization that has been invaluable in sending the message that great cabaret artists are not mere lounge entertainers. When featured in an elegant listening room, the subtlety, nuance and ferocity of their best work are unmistakable.
Consider the tour de force performance of veteran jazz singer-pianist Dave Green, one of two artists who on this night received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the cabaret organization. Singing with that famously steeped-in-smoke voice and accompanying himself at the piano with a deep-blues sensibility, Green practically transformed the Park West into a South Side jazz club of an earlier era. There was a bit of Fats Waller in his ebullient version of "Please Send Me Someone to Love," yet barely a hint of Ray Charles in his slow and disarmingly idiosyncratic version of "Georgia on My Mind."
Veteran pianist Joe Vito took the evening's other Lifetime Achievement Award, but his thoroughly musical pianism proved most satisfying as accompaniment to singer Carole March, his wife. Her impeccable pitch and unpredictable phrasings argued for the enduring freshness of her work.
When singer-pianist Judy Roberts took the stage to accept the cabaret organization's first Gold Coast Award, she reaffirmed that she'll be relocating to Phoenix at the end of the year, drawing a lament from the crowd. The sly sophistication she brought to a vocalese on "Take Five" and the ethereal tone of her duet passages with Paul Marinaro on "Autumn Leaves" illuminated how much we'll be losing when she moves away.
Though the evening's indelible moments were too numerous to cite, the high points included a haunting "Angel Eyes" from Audrey Morris, a gutsy set (in the Julie Wilson mold) from Suzanne Petri and gorgeous harmonizing from 3Girls3 (Heather Moran, MaryMonica Thomas and Gail Becker).
What a night.
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Making a connection
April 13, 2006
From an intimate nightclub to a big concert hall, a cabaret singer can light
up the night. Here are five who are doing just that READ