Boston Boîtes :: Cabaret Scene Rebounds with Punch

by John Amodeo

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday March 5, 2020

Welcome to Boston Boîtes, a monthly column by John Amodeo that previews what's coming up in Boston's resurgent cabaret scene.

Something very special, almost miraculous has happened in Boston's cabaret scene, which until a year ago had been on life support for more than a decade. During that time, few local cabaret artists were performing in the intimate boîtes that epitomize the cabaret experience. The local cabaret scene barely had a pulse, thus giving the impression it had actually died altogether. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of cabaret are greatly exaggerated.

In fact, in the past 6-8 months, the local cabaret scene has risen gloriously, like a phoenix from the ashes. Several local venues have begun presenting a full schedule of cabaret entertainment, partly through the passion of a few key individuals who saw the value in such entertainment, and partly in response to a growing market demand by an audience looking, perhaps, to escape the anxiety of today's world. Whatever the reason, there is now such a critical mass of nearly 20 shows in March alone, that it has prompted the revival of an old tradition, "March is Cabaret Month." To keep you abreast of what not to miss, I've prepared a roundup of the many performances in and around Boston for the cabaret aficionados out there.

One staple in Boston's live music scene is Club Café, located in Boston's Back Bay. Club Café is currently the only venue in Boston with live music every night of the week. With two rooms, The Napoleon Room and Moonshine, there are sometimes two different cabaret shows running concurrently. This is in addition to the vibrant piano bar scene offered every night of the week in The Napoleon Room, which, unlike the cabaret scene, has never waned in popularity since The Napoleon Room opened within the Club Café 10 years ago.

Between the two rooms, just in March, there are 12 cabaret shows being presented. Last year, John O'Neil, local cabaret impresario, performer, director and acting booking agent at Club Café, started a series called "Josephine's Cabaret at the Napoleon Room," primarily Tuesdays at 7. The series has been so popular, O'Neil has expanded the series to include other nights of the week, including "Saturdays at Five."

"Josephine's Cabaret" series in the Napoleon Room kicks off March on 3/3, with Cyndy Gale & Carla Dorato, who, being sisters, have been singing together all their lives. Their show contains songs of friendship and sisterhood from Broadway to blues. On 3/7, Matthew Willis makes his Josephine's debut with music director Joe Delgado, with songs of Broadway "and stories not approved by Mom." On 3/10, Jeanne Crowley will perform with music partners Johnny Blue Horn and Jim Perry, with a collection of songs that connect these three friends. On 3/14, genderbending Peter Mill will present "Peter Mill & Friends" with John Clark and Daniel Forest Sullivan, celebrating the music of the late composer and Broadway legend Jerry Herman, ("Hello, Dolly!," "Mame," "La Cage aux Folles") who passed away last year. On 3/17, John O'Neil himself will declare "If You're Irish, Come into the Parlor," apt for St. Patrick's Day. Expect a tuneful blend of the Irish Tenors, The Clancy Brothers, and the Irish Rovers, as O'Neil frolics through the Great Irish Songbook. You can also expect a solid hour of entertainment at its best, as O'Neil is one of Boston's finest cabaret artists.

On 3/21, The Countercats, a jazz trio with Pete Gaioni, vocalist, Bryan Buckus, piano, and Art Esposito, bass, will enliven some beloved old standards with their fresh sound. Another highly anticipated event will be the return of local favorite Michelle Currie with the Jim Rice Band on 3/23. On 3/24, Kelly Naugler will proclaim "57 and I'm in Heaven," with music director Jose Delgado, drawing from her years as an actress in local musical comedy productions to find a slice of heaven on stage and in life. On 3/28, Opera on Tap, an ensemble who is more like a house opera group, will present "From Havana to Rio," with mezzo Cailin Felsman and pianist Sally VanderPloeg, performing rare gems from Cuba and Brazil in their native Spanish and Portuguese. Opera on Tap comes to Club Cafe four-to-five times per year with a new theme each time, tapping into their vast eclectic repertoire. Closing out the month in the Napoleon Room on 3/31, one of Boston's newest theater companies, Yorick Ensemble, presents a cabaret fundraiser, "Yorick & Friends," with a nod to the Bard.

Moonshine offers two shows in March, which began on 3/2 with Tom Tucker presenting "Another Manic Monday: My '80s Songbook," whose show title just about says it all, with musical director Brian Patton, and special guests Janet Stanton and Nick Bates. Whereas New York-based MAC and Bistro Award winner Marieann Meringolo will shout "Here's to the Ladies: A Salute to Great Ladies in Song" on 3/21 with Tom LaMark on piano, and directed by Will Nunziata, celebrating the music of Peggy Lee, Barbra Streisand, Joni Mitchell and Dionne Warwick. This is one not to miss.

Frank Ribaoudo, who opened Club Café in 1983 with then partners Franco Campanello, Caleb Davis, and Joe McAllister, always had a dream, according to O'Neil, that if he ever opened a club, it would be a cabaret club. So, in 1987, Ribaudo expanded Club Café with a cabaret room in the back called the Club Cabaret which included among its regular performers Eartha Kitt, Sharon McNight, Jim Bailey, and Jimmy James, as well as a host of local performers.

While cabaret shows are still performed in that back room, which is now Moonshine, it is The Napoleon Room, which hosts the lion's share of live entertainment. Ribaudo, who was a fan of the old Napoleon's, a popular Bay Village gay nightclub and piano bar which closed in 1998, went with his then and current business partner, Jim Morgrage, to the auction where the club's artifacts were sold off, and bought the iconic stained glass windows, and statues of Napoleon and Josephine, and put them in storage. In 2010, they had the idea to close off a portion of the front restaurant with a glass wall and set it up as a cabaret room and piano bar. Christening it The Napoleon Room, they graced the room with those original Napoleon's artifacts, keeping the legacy alive. O'Neil leveraged his popularity as a local performer to become a regular piano bar entertainer at The Napoleon Room, eventually rising in responsibility to help Ribaudo and Morgrage book the space. Four years ago, O'Neil approached Ribaudo and Morgrage to begin a cabaret series on Monday nights, inspired by Jim Caruso's Cast Party at Birdland, which made industrious use of the slow Monday night time slot. "Like the good Catholic I am, I called it First Mondays," quipped O'Neil. Every month was filled with local seasoned and emerging cabaret artists, and the room was almost always filled to capacity. But the not-so-soundproof glass wall did little to insulate the Napoleon Room from the very boisterous Monday night drag bingo going on in the main restaurant. So last year, O'Neil moved the series to Tuesday nights, and called it simply Josephine's Cabaret, which freed him up to book on any night of the week. Given the current popularity of the series, he has even booked some shows on Monday nights, so be warned, you may still hear drag bingo in the background.

O'Neil marvels at the meteoric rise in popularity of the Josephine's Cabaret series. "That's part of the momentum I don't have an answer for," O'Neil ponders. "I'm very excited for it, and thrilled that Club Café has a platform for live music for everyone. Its growth is so spectacular. In four years, we went from 12 shows per year to over 50 shows. That talks about something that is happening, that is growing."

Out of this momentum, O'Neil says there are enough performances this year that he can begin a cabaret awards program, which he has named the "Frankie," after Ribaudo. "If there was ever going to be an awards program, it is now," declares O'Neil. Watch this space for more about the Frankies, which will be awarded later this year.

Cabaret performer Ida Zecco is the Rhode Island counterpart to O'Neil. Formerly a fixture in the Boston cabaret circuit when she lived in nearby Winthrop, Zecco eventually moved to Rhode Island some years ago, where she also became a regular performer, while also starting up a cabaret series, currently at the Arctic Playhouse, in Warwick, RI. "I had started a similar series at the Ocean State Theater in 2017, and I had developed an audience," explains Zecco. "For various reasons, we couldn't run the series there anymore, and people kept asking me when I would do it again."

After performing herself a few times at the Arctic Playhouse, Zecco approached Brian Sawyer, the Arctic Playhouse President, and Jim Belanger and Lloyd Felix, the two co-founders, and asked them if she could have a space to run a cabaret series. "They have been so supportive. They literally built the cabaret room for me to do this," exclaims Zecco. Opening last April, and calling it The Cabaret Club, Zecco runs the series on the last Tuesday of the month, having presented Michelle Currie, Nicolas King, and Valerie Sneade and others last year, and Jim Rice and John O'Neil this past January and February, respectively. This month, on 3/31, she presents, Jean O'Donnell, the sister of world-renowned jazz pianist Dave McKenna, in her show "Breaking Out," which takes audiences on a journey through her own musical career slowly migrating out of her brother's shadow into her own spotlight.

Another local impresario is John McDonald, who, through his production company, JM Productions, presents a cabaret series at The Common Market, with some special events at The Church of the Presidents. Long a fan of the New York City cabaret clubs like The Duplex and Don't Tell Mama, McDonald has worked hard to bring New York cabaret performers to Quincy. In 2018, he brought up twin brother cabaret artists Will and Anthony Nunziata, and in 2019 he brought up Lillias White, both to the Church of the Presidents. On 3/19-20, he will present MAC and Bistro Award winner Marissa Mulder, who will proclaim "Zing! Went the Strings," a tribute to the life and music of Judy Garland, at The Common Market.

If that isn't enough, on 3/7, Nellie McKay, a satirical singer/songwriter, and stage actress, having appeared on Broadway in the 2006 revival of "Threepenny Opera," will appear at the Regattabar in Cambridge. On 3/6-8, the popular Michael Ricca, with Ron Roy on piano, serves up "What Matters Most," featuring the songs of Michel Legrand, Stephen Sondheim, Cat Stevens, Elton John, and Burt Bacharach, among others, at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge. Ricca has been an actor on local stages, has performed many solo cabaret shows in the Boston area, and has performed and recorded with a tight harmony group called At The Movies. Finally, on 3/18, another fixture on the local cabaret scene, Brian De Lorenzo (full disclosure: he is this writer's husband), will release his latest (and second) solo recording, "I Know More Now," with music director Doug Hammer, at Oberon in Cambridge. De Lorenzo's first CD, "Found Treasures, released 20 years ago, was nominated for a MAC award in 2000. His release concert will feature songs from both recordings, which contain both popular and lesser known selections from the Great American Songbook, Broadway musicals, and contemporary cabaret, as well as a few previews of his next recording, which will feature swing music from the '50s and '60s.

With 17 shows happening in March, one could be going to a show every other night. It makes for a heady entertainment itinerary for cabaret lovers. Zecco waxes eloquent when she contemplates the popularity and uniqueness of cabaret entertainment. "I love the absence of the fourth wall in this art form. It is the ultimate in an artist being able to totally connect with the audience. There is nothing in your way," muses Zecco. "It's looking into people's eyes, seeing them nod their heads, or seeing a tear fall, or seeing them falling over in laughter. That's the magic, and the artist created that."

Zecco also thinks it is the element of surprise that brings an audience back time and again. Audiences also enjoy that personal connection with the artist not found in any other form of entertainment. "People walk away thinking they've really gotten to know the artist. That's the beauty of cabaret. We learn that we're not so different from each other. It changes your perception of that person and also your perception of yourself. You think then of your own value, your own direction," notes Zecco, who summarizes, "I love it because cabaret brings people together, and reveals that little bit of the brokenness in all of us. People need to know that we are all a little broken sometimes, and that's what makes us all so perfect."

For ticket and calendar information for shows listed at The Napoleon Room and Moonshine at Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA 02116, visit https://www.clubcafe.com/calendar/action~stream/cat_ids~41,57,62/request_format~html/

Marissa Mulder will perform "Zing! Went the Strings" on 3/19, 11:30 AM, 3/20, 11:30 AM and 8 PM, at The Common Market, 97 Willard Street, Quincy, MA 02169. Tickets are $25. For more information and tickets, visit https://jmproductionspresents.com/events/zing-went-the-strings/

Jean O'Donnell performs "Breaking Out" on 3/31, 7:30 PM at the Arctic Playhouse, 117 Washington Street, West Warwick, RI 02893, Tickets $18. For information and tickets, visit http://www.thearcticplayhouse.com/shows/2020-cabaret-star-jean-odonnell/

Nellie McKay performs on 3/7, at 7:30 at the Regattabar, Charles Hotel, One Bennett Street, Cambridge, MA 20138. Tickets $25. For information and tickets, visit http://www.getshowtix.com/regattabar/moreinfo.cgi?id=4199

Michael Ricca performs "What Matters Most" on 3/6-7 at 8 PM and 3/8 at 2 PM at The Central Square Theatre, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139. Tickets $30. For information and tickets, visit: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/events/what-matters-most/

Brian De Lorenzo performs "I Know More Now" on 3/18, at 7:30 PM at Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. Tickets $22. For information and tickets, visit: https://americanrepertorytheater.org/shows-events/brian-de-lorenzo/

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John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.

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