"Wilkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!"

March is Cabaret Month in Boston, with no fewer than 18 local performers and two cabaret legends featured as part of the festivities this year. And all the activity seems fitting--membership in the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists (BACA) is at an all-time high, and more and more people are creating shows.

But why would someone put themselves out there, figuratively naked, usually with only a pianist to give them moral and musical support, while attempting to hold the audience in their thrall (what is a thrall?) for 60 or 90 minutes? The answers are as diverse and interesting as the performers themselves. John O'Neil--pianist, vocalist, producer, vocal coach, and one of the Boston area's most colorful performers--had a variety of thoughts on the subject. "I always like to say cabaret is a little music, a little theatre and a little reality, but mostly it's about sharing ourselves," O'Neil says. "And in sharing also comes risk. The performer should be prepared to strip down emotionally to that part which is common to all of us. When the audience members recognize something of themselves (or their lives) in your work, you've got it. Why do I perform cabaret? Because I think it is the ultimate striptease."

This year, as part of Cabaret Month, O'Neil is not only producing his own show, Camp Songs, but he is also the impresario behind At Last Productions, which is currently presenting the Cabaret Times Four series at the Club Café. This features the venerable Jan Peters in Old Fashioned, Please!, Michelle Currie in Life's a Bowl of, and the innovative Ida Zecco in Loesser is More: The Music of Frank Loesser.


Putting It to Process

Zecco is one of Boston's shining cabaret stars. She says that when she started in cabaret, she garnered most of her material from Broadway shows and "the Great American Songbook," a double treasure-trove of entertaining material that ultimately didn't satisfy her. Then, while living in Europe, she says was heavily influenced by what she saw in German and French cabaret, perhaps explaining why she prefers to use stories that touch people and conjure up memories and emotions, making her vocal style and overall cabaret act uniquely character-driven.

Her process is interesting. First, Zecco may find a monologue that speaks to her sensibility, then she begins to search for the perfect song to heighten the effect. For example, she follows a monologue about a woman's decision to leave her husband and her need to come to grips with feelings of emptiness and loss with Sondheim's wrenching but hopeful "Going Going Gone".

Zecco also coaches aspiring cabaret performers and has directed any number of shows. Judging from her work and the work of others, it usually seems evident when a cabaret piece has been well thought-out and directed, as opposed to what happens when a performer just puts together the material, rehearses with an accompanist, and voila!--puts on a show. After all, to top-notch performers like Zecco, cabaret is about acting and leaving the vocal pyrotechnics to Star Search.


Seeking the Stars

Perhaps the perfect incubator for "newborn" cabaret artists is Blacksmith House, the Cambridge Adult Education facility where, since 1996, Will McMillan has produced the Cabaret Connection and encouraged all newcomers to join the scene. It's always tough to get a seat for the shows, but many of the area's established artists--Brian DeLorenzo, Ben Sears and Brad Conners among them--got their start there, and many of them return occasionally to try out new material or just do a show with less pressure and fanfare.

McMillan, a tremendously talent artist, has an instinct for cabaret, it would seem. "It can take awhile for an audience to open their ears (and their being-slash-soul) to a genuine, delicious, intimate cabaret experience. Cabaret is about the audience and the accompanist leaning in to catch every single word, breath, hiccup, fart, tear, insight, and hope."

McMillan notes that cabaret can frequently focus in on the lighter side, and as part of Cabaret Month, McMillan and O'Neill Cabaret Symposium Fellows Michael Ricca, Nina Vansuch and Brian Patton (on piano) are all doin' the poignant 'n' zany thing. Chills, thrills, pills, international espionage and heartbreaking romance all converge as they romp through songs from cult films of the '50s and '60s, including Valley of the Dolls and Faster Pussy Cat, Kill! Kill!.


Loose Upon the Chanteuse

When the elegant and very funny chanteuse In creating her show , Leopold looked at what she calls "New Standards"--songs by such composers as Stephen Sondheim and Craig Carnelia that have memorable chord structures and a universal quality, with intelligent, witty lyrics that tell a story. Songs, Leopold says, like Carnelia's "Flight"--"yearning to be free from demons, living passionately and gracefully"--and Sondheim's "Move On", a song she says "should be my mantra." Such songs largely depend on lyrics to give them flight, and Leopold finds many of the humorous songs written by Christine Lavin, Camellia West and John Forester applicable to her taste and irresistible.

For De Lorenzo--he of the gorgeous tenor--the key words are "lyrics" and "intimacy". He hopes the audience leaves his show having learned something about himself, but also, more importantly, themselves. Aiming to try something new for the Cabaret Month series, De Lorenzo has invited two local faves, Nicole Kempinski and Robert Saoud, both regulars on the Boston theater scene, to be guest performers in his latest show. Saoud, with whom Brian worked in Assassins and She Loves Me at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, will perform "Lily's Eyes" from The Secret Garden and "It Would Have Been Wonderful" from A Little Night Music, two dazzling duets for men. De Lorenzo will then partner with Kempinski on a comic number from Candide, "Oh, Happy We", and "You Are My Home" from The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Finally, the fabulous Julie Wilson, fresh from another sell-out at the Algonquin in New York City and a salute to Mabel Mercer in St. Petersburg, Russia, along with exquisite song-stylist Wesla Whitfield, will each have performance dates at Sculler's Jazz Club in March. All-in-all, stellar choices, whether you're looking for the already-greats or the soon-to-be's.