If you are one of those people who summers in Provincetown (or would like to) and you miss the vibrant cabaret scene that existed there in the '80s, you would have been in Shan-gri-la in P-town on May 5 through May 7. Over the course of one weekend, 14 Boston-area cabaret performers participated in a series of shows, lectures, workshops, and master classes that collectively made up the program for CabaretFest!.
This three-day extravaganza was the brainchild of local cabaret performer, John O'Neil (morphing into a producer extraordinaire) and AtLast! Productions. Judging by the huge turnout, O'Neil may have indeed found a new calling. Much of the event's success can be directly attributed to his artistic vision, his remarkable business savvy, and his ability to rally the support of the town behind him.
Armed with a good idea and a clear business plan, O'Neil persuaded the Provincetown Board of Tourism to underwrite the publicity, which then encouraged venues like The Crown and Anchor, Guest House, Stormy Harbor, Steve's Alibi, and the BeaconLight to participate in the event. And this was not just an event--it was truly a festival, something O'Neil felt was necessary to draw attention in a town that already has a built-in carnival atmosphere. The strategy paid off in spades, as several hundred people turned out, filling the cabaret rooms to capacity.
The grand opening took place on Friday night with an early and a late show at the Crown and Anchor, newly rebuilt--with a splendid cabaret room replete with sound, lights, and private dressing rooms--after last year's devastating fire. The evening was a showcase of the weekends' performers, expertly hosted by the grand dame of Boston cabaret herself, Carol O'Shaughnessy. O'Shaughnessy was completely gracious to her peers, extolling their virtues in glowing introductions.
In her own sets, O'Shaughnessy showed exactly how it should be done, warming up the audience with her stories and trademark self-deprecating humor. She had people doubled-over with laughter with a parody of "Memory" from Cats sung with unfaltering mock-gravity. Then she rendered the room breathless with a riveting "My Favorite Year." Her closing, a Peter Pan medley that must be seen, she lead the audience in a fun-filled sing-along of crowing and flying, finishing with a heartfelt "Never Never Land." O'Shaughnessy has never sounded better than she has in the past several months, and I would encourage anyone who hasn't seen her recently to get to her upcoming shows.
The evenings' cavalcade represented a cross-section of the Boston cabaret artist community, ranging in age, gender, and experience, all performing their personal best. Among the men, Randy Zinkus featured his buttery baritone in the touching "Mama, A Rainbow" from Minnie's Boys, then deftly twisted the Mother's Day tribute with a comic "Lizzie Borden" from New Faces of 1952. Duo Ben Sears and Brad Conner were adorably funny with Irving Berlin's "You'd Be Surprised," though were less effective with a leaden dance routine in "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan."
Britton White, a promising young newcomer with boy-next-door looks and a gorgeous tenor, made a nice impression with the rarely heard Billy Joel gem, "You're My Home," which nevertheless might have landed better at a slower tempo. Another accomplished tenor, Brian De Lorenzo, offered Barry Manilow's "All the Time,"using the cabaret setting to expose layers of meaning often lost in mainstream versions. John O'Neil himself also took to the stage, amazing the audience with his command of complex lyrics and comic timing in Kirby Tepper's "The Ship Sails On," a hilarious tour-de-force concerning a pair of lesbian seagulls on Noah's Ark.
The women were equally impressive, with Sarah deLima poignant one minute during Noel Coward's "Mad About the Boy," and lusciously lascivious the next, in Sondheim's "Can That Boy Foxtrot." Ida Zecco followed with what has to be a definitive delivery of Sondheim's "I Never Do Anything Twice," using her huge repertoire of comic expressions to great effect. Jan Peters pulled out all the stops with Kander and Ebb's celebratory "Yes," followed by David Friedman's riotously funny "My Simple Christmas Wish." Only Dorothy Miller, an energetic piano bar entertainer, seemed like a fish out of water in this line-up, offering "Some People" from Gypsy and "It Never Was You" by Kurt Weill in a show-bizzy style that never really found the core of either song.
Saturday night boasted four performances in three different venues. Singer/songwriter Ernie Lijoi performed at Steve's Alibi. Lijoi's comic improv patter and witty lyrics often suggested Robin Williams meets Stephen Sondheim. His work is something to watch out for. Although I was unable to catch their evening show, I did attend a Sears and Conner lecture on "Top Hat: The Songs of Fred Astaire". Their knowledge of the American songbook, which they impart with a sweet unassuming generosity, is impressively encyclopedic. Sears and Conner performed their "Top Hat" show at the Schoolhouse Gallery, and if their evening show had only half the depth of their lecture, it would still be filled with numerous worthwhile nuggets.
The other two shows of the evening, at the Crown and Anchor, represented the art of cabaret at its finest. At 8pm, O'Neil, Zinkus, and De Lorenzo teamed up to perform Boys Will Be Boys. Opening with a zany medley of "Fun" from Big, and "Stuck on You" from Whoop-De-Doo, arranged in Manhattan Transfer-style tight harmonies, the trio whipped the audience into a frenzy. They were also standouts in their individual numbers. Highlights included Zinkus's sweet rendering of Susan Werner's "Much At All" and a deftly wacky delivery of Annie Ross' "Twisted."
De Lorenzo had the audience alternately swooning and cheering in an unconventional version of "Who Will Buy" from Oliver, then had them mesmerized during "A Trick of Fate," by David Friedman. O'Neil showed his full range in a set that featured the comic paean to Elizabeth Taylor, "Elizabeth," especially as he listed her married names ("To my heart you hold an immense key. I love you Elizabeth Taylor, Hilton, Wilder, Todd, Fisher, Burton, Burton, Warner, ...Fortensky.") But it was in his engaging performance of the Hamlisch/Ashman gem "Disneyland" that O'Neil's full heart was revealed, drawing the audience into his story, building moment upon wonderful moment. The trio's sensational reprise of "Fun/Stuck on You" demonstrated the shear joy of cabaret for both performers and audience. It doesn't get better much than this.
The final show of the evening was Girl Talk, featuring Zecco, deLima, and Peters. Structured perfectly to complement Boys Will Be Boys, the show contained many highlights, but didn't appear as solid as its predecessor (perhaps owing to the fact that the adjoining disco contributed a constant dance beat that made it difficult for both audience and performer to hear what was going on). The three women had a great rapport on stage and blended quite well vocally. Zecco and Peters expressed a wonderful solidarity in Carol Hall's "Hard Candy Christmas." Zecco reeled in the audience with a very funny original monologue concerning an Italian mother talking her kids into sticking with a marriage even when they are on the rocks. She also demonstrated nice phrasing in the lovely Carroll Coates song, "Better to Have Loved and Lost."
DeLima shined in her comic numbers, such as the aptly chosen "Fairies at the Bottom of My Garden" and John Wallowich's delusional eternal youth song, "Twenty-Seven," which she turned into a running gag for the rest of the weekend. Peters turned in her usual reliable, strong, solid mix of old and new standards playing off her great vocals and splendid humor, particularly in her rousing closer "Sing For Your Supper," by Rodgers and Hart. I can't help thinking, however, that the disco drum beat in the room behind the stage wasn't throwing off her timing just a little. Hopefully, the room owner will find a way, physically or operationally, to address this if this space, one of the best in town, is ever to succeed as a cabaret venue.
The musical accompaniment for the entire weekend was ably provided by the very talented and facile Jim Rice on piano, who managed to switch styles on a dime for nearly a dozen singers during the span of an evening. The afternoon master classes and lectures reflected the enormous talent and high skill level of the performer/teachers. O'Neil and O'Shaughnessy made great progress with willing participants in their cabaret master class, eliciting sighs of approval from the audience when a student immediately "got it" and transformed themselves right then and there. Zecco's "Comedy in Cabaret" lecture went an hour overtime in an attempt to respond to the questions of the eager participants.
O'Neil has clearly found a way to fill a conspicuous void in Provincetown's performing arts scene with CabaretFest!. With a brilliantly structured and seamlessly produced program, and extremely well chosen talent, O'Neil showed that cabaret entertainment can draw crowds and gratify audiences. Individual performers have been asked to return for smaller events over the coming season and Boys Will Be Boys and Girl Talk will both return later this year.
Most telling of all, Cabaret Fest! is slated to return next May with an expanded program and even more funding from the town. You would be well advised to mark next year's calendar now for the first weekend in May, so you won't miss out on CabaretFest! 2001. Provincetown may yet become the cabaret lover's Shan-gri-la.