June 13, 2022
Upcoming CabaretFest Provincetown 2022 Celebrates Hollywood with Starry Line-up
John Amodeo READ TIME: 12 MIN.
CabaretFest Provincetown celebrates its 22nd year with "Hooray for Hollywood," a tribute to the great songs from the silver screen, June 21-26, at Provincetown's Brown Derby Room at Gabriel's Guest House, the Red Room, and the Crown and Anchor.
The Festival fills each day with afternoon and evening performances by 28 performers who range from Broadway and cabaret legends to local emerging artists, as well as morning master classes and workshops offered by the region's leading experts. The event is a full immersion in cabaret, offering a rare and extraordinary bonding between performers, students, and audience members. MAC Award winner Natalie Douglas will headline Saturday, June 25, Broadway star and MAC Award winner Karen Mason will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award that same evening, and festival favorite Bistro Award winner Nicolas King will be handing out the first annual Mike Renzi Spotlight Award on Sunday morning to an emerging artist.
Douglas, who has performed at all the great Manhattan venues, toured nationally and internationally, and is known for her tribute shows to great singers of color, will be premiering her show "Bronze Goddesses of the Silver Screen" at CabaretFest, featuring hits by Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, and Shirley Bassey. "Lena was not the first Black woman to sing in film, but she was the first to negotiate a contract that she would never appear as a maid," notes Douglas, who has often woven themes of social justice and racial equity into her shows. "There was a convention in the late '30s, that when Black actors appear on film, they were maids, servants, [or] African natives in some 'Tarzan' picture. Hollywood didn't allow for a wide range of expression for a Black actor."
Douglas may weave some of the stories of Horne's tribulations into her cabaret show, such as studios casting Horne to appear in just one scene to sing a song, often gratuitous, that the studios could cut for distribution in the South. She may share another where Vincent Minnelli became one of Horne's strongest champions, casting her in "Cabin in the Sky," and inviting her to be one of Liza's godmothers. Such stories help to illuminate the songs Douglas will perform to feature these leading ladies of color. "So, the show I'm putting together is about the stars that we know, the grand beautiful stars, like Diana Ross, and the songs we associate with them, and also the lesser-known performers and what they sang."
In her past tribute shows, Douglas has honored greats like Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr., and Shirley Bassey. "What I like about them is how broad their reach is," explains Douglas. "Nina Simone didn't confine herself to singing just jazz. Sammy Davis Jr. didn't just sing Great American Songbook. Diana Ross was not content to remain a Motown singer. I admire people who keep developing, and whose sense of who they are isn't stuck in time." But Douglas especially likes to discuss her fascination with Bassey. "I love Shirley Bassey singing 'Goldfinger.' It is amazing. There is a great story about that, and how the power from 'Goldfinger' was put to use on the runway at Gatwick Airport."
Douglas' fascination with Bassey extends to her vocal technique and interpretive ability. "Her voice is so nimble," marvels Douglas, "that she can sing so quietly that the voice just sings without the gorgeous belt. She's such a good storyteller, too. She's not just gowns and a brassy belt. She communicates through song. Her version of 'If You Go Away,' was Rod McEwan's favorite (he wrote one set of the English lyrics)." Douglas points out that the key to interpretation is honesty. "I love people who are truly themselves, and they make no apologies for it," proclaims Douglas. "That is Shirley Bassey. And it's the same for Diana and Whitney."
The summer of 2020, the pandemic, the complete halt to live performing, and the George Floyd murder profoundly affected Douglas, galvanizing her focus on issues of social justice. "When I do the research – and I love the research– when I'm looking at the lives of the Black artists who went before me – Lena, Nina, Sammy, Stevie – I always come across their story of the racial prejudice they had to overcome to do what they did," laments Douglas. "We've made progress since then, but we are not done, not by a long stretch. If Black people could have gotten rid of racism on our own, we would have eliminated racism. We need the allies."
Diversity and racial equity were also on the mind of CabaretFest producer Patricia Fitzpatrick, who was interested in making the festival more diverse. But like so many professions and industries, the pool of people of color in cabaret is limited. Several people, including this writer, had recommended Douglas in the past as a potential headliner, but Fitzpatrick was unfamiliar with her. "Then one night, I went to Jim Caruso's 'Cast Party,' and she got up and performed. I was bowled over," enthuses Fitzpatrick. "Then I saw her again at Birdland, but I couldn't get to her." Shortly after that, serendipity seated Douglas next to Fitzpatrick at Mike Renzi's memorial service, and she got her chance. Happily, Douglas accepted.
Fitzpatrick has also instituted a now-annual tradition of granting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Festival. Past recipients include such cabaret luminaries as Bobby Wetherbee, Carol O'Shaughnessy, Marilyn Maye, Sharon McNight, Sidney Myer, and Steve Ross. This year, the award is being given to Karen Mason, who recently received a MAC Lifetime Achievement Award, and is a multiple recipient of MAC and Bistro Awards. After leaving her hometown of Chicago for New York in the late 1970s, Mason became an instant cabaret favorite there, opening the now-legendary cabaret club Don't Tell Mama, and routinely selling out cabaret rooms in Manhattan, nationally, and internationally. In addition to her cabaret work, Mason has also done quite a bit of stage work, most prominently as Glenn Close's standby for Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" in LA and then on Broadway, and having performed the role dozens of times. Her other Broadway work includes originating the role of Tanya in "Mamma Mia," as well as playing Velma von Tussle in "Hairspray," the Queen of Hearts in Frank WIldhorn's "Wonderland," the torch singer in the original production of "Torch Song Trilogy," and the "Mr. Monotony" singer in "Jerome Robbins' Broadway." More recently she has toured as Madame Giry in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" sequel "Love Never Dies." Boston audiences may remember Mason as Joanne in the 1997 Huntington Theater Company production of Sondheim's "Company." Mason, a prolific and popular recording artist, has seven solo recordings, and can be heard as a guest singer on numerous compilation recordings, as well as the Off-Broadway cast recording of Kander and Ebb's "And the World Goes 'Round," in which Mason also starred.
While those accomplishments amount to a vast body of work certainly qualifying Mason for her Lifetime Achievement Award, Mason demurs. "It's a little daunting," admits Mason, "and I have two reactions: 1) Wait a minute! I still have more to do, and 2) I've been around a long time. [laughs] It's a total honor that people recognize that you are doing viable work. That it's not over."
Mason is always assessing and reassessing, which is how she stays on the top of her game. "The first time I did a cabaret was with Brian Lasser in 1976. That's a long time ago," remarks Mason. "It's a long period of growth, learning new things, trying to make myself a better performer and a better creator. Working with great people, a lifetime achievement should be shared with all the other people I've worked with. I feel a great deal of honor in the cabaret community. People come and go, and it's great to be recognized for just sticking around."
Like many Manhattan-based stage and cabaret performers, Mason appeared on the television series "Law and Order," but other film work eluded here until last year, when she was cast in the pivotal role of Estelle Marsh in Ryan Murphy's acclaimed mini-series "Halston," opposite Ewan McGregor. She made an unforgettable entrance in a mustard gold wool skirt suit, trimmed in a leopard print fur collar with matching leopard print hat and shoes. "The shoes were a little uncomfortable, but that suit got more reactions!" exclaims Mason. "It was so much fun to do. I loved doing it. I haven't had an extensive film and TV career, so to be on set and get that role, with all those generous people, I'm so ready for more." And, star that she is, Mason is not beyond being a little star-struck herself. "Ewan McGregor was an absolute doll. He was so sweet to me. He just jumped in with the actors he was doing scenes with. There were no walls between us," notes Mason, though getting the requisite selfie, without acting like a fan, required a little ingenuity. "I was so nervous to take a picture with Ewan and I really wanted one," confesses Mason. "So, we were all seated in a holding area in these chairs, he had his with his name on it, and I basically took my camera and turned it to get a photo of me... with him in the background; he was on his phone."
Another new tradition that Fitzpatrick has started is the Mike Renzi Spotlight Award, to be given to one of the artists performing in the Festival's "Spotlight" series, a 30-minute set designed to encourage emerging artists to test their material and cut their teeth in front of an audience without the pressure of a full 60-70 minute show. This year's judges for the first annual award will be Carol O'Shaughnessy, Sidney Myer, Angela Bacari, and Mike McAssey, all past festival participants. For Fitzpatrick, naming the award after the late piano accompanist Mike Renzi, who had participated in the past two Festivals and who passed away last September, was a no-brainer. "Two-o'clock in the morning, Angela calls me and tells me Mike had passed away," recounts Fitzpatrick. "We both cried, and I said I would give out an award in his name. He's one of the few musicians who is about the lyric."
Cabaret performer and CabaretFest favorite Nicolas King will hand out the first Mike Renzi Spotlight Award at this year's festival. This will be bittersweet for King, as Renzi was King's musical director and accompanist for the past 14 years, the two having started working together when King was just 16. Together, they have played all the great rooms in Manhattan and toured the US and the world together. "I think Mike would be very proud," notes King. "He wasn't into getting compliments. It wasn't about him. He was uncomfortable about getting a lot of recognition. But I am so proud of his legacy, and to have an award in his name like that is very special." King elaborates on what it was like to work with Renzi for so many years. "He knew every lyric to the songs he played. He's not just playing the chords, he was playing notes that matched the lyric," describes King. "If the lyric was about springtime, you can bet you would hear the birds chirping in his notes."
What Douglas, Mason, King, and Fitzpatrick all love about cabaret is its universality. Douglas sums it up when she talks about the specificity of songs made famous by the likes of Horne, Fitzgerald, or Bassey that still manage to resonate with people today. "The challenge is to bring enough of yourself to it, but also to let the audience in enough, so as you are singing about your story or Lena Horne's story, or Ella's story, they can see some of themselves in it. You allow the audience in," muses Douglas. "Shakespeare, Sondheim, and Maya Angelou talk about themselves, but we recognize ourselves in them and seeing their stories remind us who we are, and that is the soul-to-soul connection I like to form when we are on stage."
Natalie Douglas, Karen Mason, and Nicolas King will be among the 28 cabaret artists appearing in "Hooray for Hollywood," CabaretFest Provincetown, June 21-26, 2022. Performances will be held at the Brown Derby Room at Gabriel's Guesthouse, 102 Bradford St, Provincetown, MA 02657; the Red Room, 258 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA 02657; and The Crown & Anchor, 247 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA 02657. VIP Plus pass for the entire festival: $275. Individual shows: $25-$45. For tickets, visit: https://www.provincetowncabaretfest.com/
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.