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Making a connection
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

BY LEAH A. ZELDES
Daily Herald Correspondent
Posted Friday, April 07, 2006

Grappling with the definition of "cabaret," Chicago diva Nan Mason called up Google and read the first definitions it offered.

"A simple performance platform, with the audience usually seated at tables. ..."

"A restaurant or nightclub providing short programs of live entertainment. ..."

"A spot that is open late at night and that provides entertainment (as singers or dancers) as well as dancing and food and drink. ..."

That might define the place but delineating the form comes harder.

"Cabaret is intimate. That can be defined by the room," vocalist Suzanne Petri said.

A cabaret singer has to connect intimately with the audience. The room needn't matter, said singer-pianist Beckie Menzie, who's performed in venues as large as New York's Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

"Can you create intimacy in Carnegie Hall? Yes," she said.

When it comes to the music, though, said Heather Moran, a Naperville cabaret artist, "I think the word 'cabaret' scares people." "They think they have to do a Cole Porter show," singer Daryl Nitz said.

Certainly composers like Porter and Irving Berlin and others of the "Great American Songbook" figure hugely. Yet music of the likes of Elton John, the Beatles, Elvis and Laura Nyro turns up on local set lists as well, not to mention newly composed songs.

In Chicago performers also lean toward local traditions.

"Our heart comes from jazz and the blues and New York's comes from Broadway," said Bradford Thacker, a Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs program director, who arranges cabaret shows for the city.

About the only benchmark everyone agrees on is that cabaret focuses on vocals.

"The lyric is very important in cabaret," Petri said. "You're telling a story in song."

A good cabaret artist can "sell a song," said Karen Daly, who attends cabaret shows several times a month.

Locally cabaret artists have been "selling their songs" by edging away from the conventional, perhaps more than elsewhere. "We have been expanding the definition of cabaret," said Petri, president of Chicago Cabaret Professionals, a performers' group. "It changes every week."

Here are five artists who are defining cabaret in the Chicago area. For a list of where to see them, see accompanying story.

Nan Mason

When we asked local fans and artists to name Chicago's top cabaret singers, Nan Mason's name was on every list.

Mason does a four-hour show at Chestnut Grill in Streeterville each night from Tuesday through Saturday, perhaps the only local artist to perform so regularly at one venue.

"Nan Mason truly is the best entertainer in Chicago," Thacker said.

"She's the best in Chicago," echoed TV producer Roger Anderson, a regular at her show, along with other cast and crew members of "ER."

"She keeps a room lively all night long," Thacker said.

From her perch on the piano, the petite Mason practically electrifies the room. Wisecracking and bantering with her audience between bursts of song, she keeps them focused right where she wants them.

"She's also the quickest, wittiest person I know," Thacker said. "I love what she does."

As a singer, she ranges from smooth and sweet to torridly torchy, with a rich, slightly breathy tone and a repertoire that mixes blues, jazz and pop with Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood. She calls "This is My Life," the Shirley Bassey signature, her theme song.

Mason and other top cabaret performers, said singer MaryMonica Thomas, have a knack for making a song their own.

"Nan sang a Barbra Streisand song, 'What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?' Barbra Streisand didn't touch me. When Nan sang it, I got it," she said.

A Washington, D.C., native, Mason came to Chicago to study theater at DePaul University and sing rock 'n' roll. In the late 1970s, she turned torch singer, and presided over The Pump Room for most of a decade before moving on to New York and Hollywood. When Mason returned to Chicago in 1990, there wasn't much of a cabaret scene, so she mostly sang jazz until the tide turned back toward cabaret - or whatever Chicago calls cabaret - in the late '90s.

She recently released a new CD, "One for My Baby," a collection of Harold Arlen hits such as "Stormy Weather" and "Over the Rainbow."

Beckie Menzie

Practically everyone talking about Beckie Menzie works words like "phenomenal" into the conversation.

"A phenomenal singer," Thacker said. "She is one of the most brilliant musicians we have."

A polished and charming performer with a multilayered voice, Menzie is one of the lynchpins of the cabaret scene. As accomplished a pianist as she is a singer, Menzie frequently serves as musical director and accompanist for others, as well as designing their musical ar-rangements.

"Her arrangements are just phenomenal," Thomas said.

Since 1989, Menzie's weekly open-mike at Gentry (now Sunday nights at 440 N. State St.), has launched many local performers. Thomas credits her start as a singer to Menzie's encouragement. Menzie also advances budding musical artists as a teacher in Northwestern University's Musical Theatre Department.

She's acted in musicals, too. And, with Cheri Coons, Menzie wrote the Joseph Jefferson Citation-nominated score of "Female Problems," a musical produced by Pegasus Players, the theater that brought Menzie, an Indiana native, to Chicago in 1988. She and Coons were invited to perform one of their songs, "One Woman's Story," at Carnegie Hall.

Menzie just released "Better Two-Gether," a medley of pop hits, classic standards and show tunes with her longtime musical partner Tom Michael, another acclaimed local cabaret singer. A series of Saturday shows at Davenport's in Wicker Park throughout April cele-brates the CD's release. The two will also perform in the Chicago Cabaret Professionals spring series.

They recently debuted at Lincoln Center and just returned from a floating gig on a cruise ship in Asia. As a duo, Menzie and Michael virtually constitute another defining element of Chicago cabaret.

Daryl Nitz

Daryl Nitz is a focal point of Chicago cabaret. Scarcely anything goes that he has no part of.

"He can whip these shows out," Moran said. "He's brilliant."

Known especially for his astonishingly apt vocal impersonations of such musical icons as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and at least a score of others, the lanky blond singer projects a polished bass-baritone in his own persona as well as a vibrant, witty banter with audiences.

Every F-ence" at Davenport's. The two will soon release a CD.

In between, Nitz organizes a host of other shows, coaches and directs other singers, serves as vice president of Chicago Cabaret Profes-sionals, drops in at other performers' gigs, takes voice lessons and, incidentally, conducts a full-time career as an elementary-school teacher.

A native of Elgin who started out singing at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Nitz began his professional career about 16 years ago on the Spirit of Chicago cruise ship.

Among his upcoming shows, Nitz organized the four-part Chicago Cabaret Professionals spring series featuring more than 30 performers, beginning Sunday, and will direct and host four performances of a Judy Garland tribute April 20-23.

Suzanne Petri

"She's so good!" Daly said. "She really knows how to sell a song."

The vivacious, smoky-voiced Suzanne Petri performs what she calls "Songs in the Key of Diva" about every two weeks in a Parisian-style cabaret in the basement of Cyrano's Bistrot, a French restaurant in River North, usually with her musical director, Bob Moreen, a pianist and vocalist.

Both will also appear in the Chicago Cabaret Professionals' spring series. Petri appears regularly at a variety of venues.

"I just love her smile," Daly said. "She's so attractive."

After several forays from her native Minneapolis, Petri came to Chicago for good in 1986.

"There's so much better cabaret here," she said. "Also theater."

An actress as well as a singer, Petri belongs to American Theater Company's ensemble and has also acted at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Apple Tree Theatre and others. She brings a strong theatricality to her cabaret performances, which comes across even in her CD "A Marvelous Party." Her rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "Ladies Who Lunch" is a showstopper.

"Suzy Petri is a great interpreter," Thacker said. "She has such style."

Her repertoire extends beyond the Great American Songbook to Kurt Weill, Jacques Brel and other Europeans. She also does a few impressions, singing in the style of Marlene Dietrich, Edith Piaf and others.

"Her Dietrich is exquisite," Thacker said.

MaryMonica Thomas

"The first word that comes to mind is 'lovely,'" Thacker said. "She's beautiful.

"She's a very sexy singer. She's smooth. I could sit and listen to her all day."

Approaching her 40th birthday, MaryMonica Thomas is one of the younger cabaret artists in Chicago. About 10 years ago, she left a lifelong career as a dancer and chorister and made her first efforts to sing alone, appearing at open-mikes around town, such as the one held by Menzie.

"I never considered myself as a singer," she said. "I had terrible stage fright. Beckie always encouraged me."

Today, she's hitting her stride.

"Like opera singers, cabaret singers' voices mature and improve with experience," Thacker said.

Thomas appears on Mondays and Fridays at Tuscany in Oak Brook and sings with a dance band called Interlude and a harmony trio called 3 Girls 3, as well as running MaryMonica Music, a booking agency that represents a wide variety of local performers, including cabaret artists.

In the mood for some cabaret? Here's where to go Here's a look at where you can hear some of the best cabaret singers in Chicago. "We Go Together"

Chicago Cabaret Professionals spring series

Where: Davenport's Piano Bar and Cabaret, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago

When: 5 p.m. Sunday, April 16 and 30 and May 7

Tickets: $15 per show, $50 for four-show pass; a two-drink minimum per show also applies; reservations required Box office: (773) 278-1830 or www.davenportspianobar.com

Chicago Cabaret Professionals, whose members comprise most local performers in this genre, applauds Broadway composer duos with four Sundays of song. Each night, up to eight different singers will showcase tunes from such Broadway blockbusters as "My Fair Lady," "Fiddler on the Roof," "The Pajama Game" and "Damn Yankees."

"We always do tributes to solo composers, but the combos get overlooked," said Daryl Nitz, the series' organizer. More than 30 performers are involved in the series, including Nitz, Joan Curto, George Howe, Beckie Menzie, Tom Michael, Bob Moreen, Suzanne Petri, Bradford Thacker and MaryMonica Thomas.

Sunday highlights the music of Betty Comden and Adolph Greene, composers for "Peter Pan," "On the Town" and "Wonderful Town." April 16 offers an evening of tunes by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, whose hits include "Dancin' in the Dark" and "That's Entertainment."

The April 30 show, "To Life," celebrates the music of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who composed the music of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Fiorello," plus Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, who wrote scores for "Damn Yankees" and "The Pajama Game." The date hap-pens to be the Chicago-born Harnick's birthday. The May 7 tribute, "The Lusty Month of May," honors Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, composers for such musicals as "Brigadoon," "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot."

"Judy at Carnegie: Celebration of a Legend
"

Judy Garland revue

Where: Lakeshore Theater, 3175 N. Broadway, Chicago

When: 7:30 p.m. April 20-22, 5 p.m. April 23

Tickets: $29-$39

Box office: (773) 472-3492 or www.lakeshoretheater.com

The recording of Judy Garland's Carnegie Hall concert on April 23, 1961, topped sales charts for 13 weeks and won five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and Best Female Vocal Performance. Celebrating the 45th anniversary of that historic show, Daryl Nitz will host and direct a song-by-song recreation.

Other performers range from nationally known singer Spider Saloff to newcomer Mekole Wells. Amy Armstrong, Ester Hana, Elizabeth Doyle, Margie Gibson, KT McCammond, Colleen McHugh, Stephen Rader and musical director George Howe fill out the cast.

"The Carnegie Hall album has an interesting story," Nitz said. "The first album had the songs in the wrong order. There are four different versions, and only the latest one got it right."

While the songs in this show, which include "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Stormy Weather," "That's Entertainment," "Over the Rainbow" and "Come Rain or Come Shine," to name a few, will be in the right order, they won't necessarily be in the arrangements Garland sang. Even Nitz, known for his characterizations of legendary singers, including Garland, will be going his own way.

"I don't try to impersonate Judy," he said, noting that he's encouraged the singers to make their own choices as to whether they'll interpret Garland literally or perform the music in their own style.

And more

'Better TwoGether': Beckie Menzie and Tom Michael perform songs from some of the world's most beloved tuneful twosomes, including The Carpenters, Simon & Garfunkel and The Everly Brothers, at 8 p.m. Saturdays through April 29 at Davenport's, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Tickets cost $18 plus a two-drink minimum; reservations required. (773) 278-1830 or davenportspianobar.com.

Suzanne Petri with Bob Moreen: Petri performs her signature storytelling in song with pianist Moreen at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. April 15 and 29 and May 13 and 27 at Cafe Simone Parisian Cabaret at Cyrano's Bistrot and Wine Bar, 546 N. Wells St., Chicago. There's a $10 cover charge; reservations required. (312) 467-0546 or www.cyranosbistrot.com.

'I Remember You': Audrey Morris, the septuagenarian grande dame of Chicago lounge singers, and rising vocalist Paul Marinaro, with acclaimed jazz artist Judy Roberts at the piano, perform a tribute to songwriter Johnny Mercer ("Moon River," "Fools Rush In," "The Days of Wine and Roses"). The event takes at place at 7 p.m. May 3 in the city of Chicago's opulent Maxim's: The Nancy Goldberg In-ternational Center, 24 E. Goethe St., Chicago, originally a favorite nightspot of 1960s Chicago cafe society. Tickets are $20. (312) 742-1748 or www.maximschicago.org.

Nan Mason: Mason sings up a storm, chivvies and cracks up her audience and generally hosts a marvelous party from 8 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays through Saturdays at Chestnut Grill & Wine Bar, 200 E. Chestnut St., Chicago. No cover charge. (312) 266-4500. 'The Nitz and Howe Experience': Singer Daryl Nitz and pianist George Howe host a rollicking show, part requests, part audience participation and part comedy, with Nitz's impressions of such singers as Neil Diamond, Billie Holliday and Eartha Kitt seasoning the mix, from 10 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays at Davenport's Piano Bar and Cabaret, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. The cover is $2 plus a two-drink minimum. (773) 278-1830 or davenportspianobar.com.

MaryMonica Thomas with Myles Greene: The sultry Thomas, accompanied by veteran pianist Green, sings a changing mix of jazz, pop, R&B and standards from 7 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays and 7:30 p.m. to midnight Fridays at Tuscany, Oak Brook Towers, 1415 W. 22nd St., Oak Brook. No cover charge. (630) 990-1993.