"What good is sitting alone in your room. Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret, old chum, come to the cabaret."
That was solid advice from Miss Sally Bowles in Kander and Ebb's classic Cabaret, and, if I were you, I'd take her up on it and come to the Music Box Theater, where a particularly high style of cabaret is in performance through November. This second production from the newly minted troupe is called Damaged Divas of the Decades, and if that title alone doesn't propel you to Colquitt and Kirby, what kind of theater queen are you?
Cabaret, of course, is a time-honored big-city entertainment: intimate and boozy, a sophisticated evening's wrap-up after dinner at eight. In Manhattan, it's a time to savor a showbiz legend (either on the way down or clawing back into our consciousness) or else a "chanteuse," who is, as big-band singer Dolly Dawn once quipped, a singer who can't sing. Cafe tables (often lit with candles or upscale pinspots) define the audience space where the footlights would normally be, and the artists emerge up close and personal in a way they never could in the theater. Except for bootscootin' bars with weekend bands — not exactly your Cole Porter experience — there's no such after-evening venue in Bayou City. Until now. We offer Music Box a grateful embrace and a well-intentioned air kiss. Welcome to the neighborhood.
The troupe's five performers, all locally known and respected, have musical talent to spare and intriguing personalities to blend together when necessary and to cause sparks when needed. It's a bracing mix and, vocally, is unchallenged anywhere in town. The one thing these fresh but showbiz-savvy adults have in common is Masquerade Theatre, Houston's premiere showcase for fully staged musicals. To some degree they've all been forged in its crucible and have emerged shiny and strong. As pros, they know through instinct and training how to put across a song. They also know how to entertain.
And, holy Broadway Baby, this show is most assuredly entertaining. Since cabarets nearly always have some theme or loose thread to bind up the evening, Damaged Divas is just what you'd think it's about: a tribute to music's self-suffering divas, from jazz's Etta James and Billie Holiday, to rock's Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks, to pop's Barbra Streisand and Mama Cass. Some divos get thrown in, too — one of the masters of ceremony is William Shatner (the sprightly John Gremillion plays "guest host" in a variety of crafty personae), the diva-est of divas.
Rebekah Dahl, co-founder of Music Box with fellow troupe member/husband Brad Scarborough, is a Houston musical theater treasure, whose previous performances onstage as Mrs. Lovett, Adelaide and Mama Rose have been indelible. She comes to performing as naturally as breathing does to us. Her powerhouse stage presence gets ample show time with a Jim Beam-infused rendition of Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee" and a shattering reprise of Mama Rose's intense credo, "Everything's Coming up Roses."
With his matinee-idol, all-American handsomeness and pliant, strong, high tenor voice, Scarborough defines natural affability with easygoing charm. His patented falsetto is put to spectacular use on "Big Girls Don't Cry," and his sly magnetism unearthed in Gordon/Warren's earthy "At Last," in tribute to blues legend Etta James.
Cay Taylor, during her Masquerade days, had the lock on ingenue roles such as Marian (The Music Man) and Amy (Little Women), but at Music Box she gets to show off her sexy, comedic side (or is that her comedic, sexy side?) in Miss Bowles's anthem from Cabaret (bestride a chair, à la Dietrich) or her absolutely perfect reading, aurally and visually, of diva deluxe Miss Streisand in "Get Happy," artfully coaxing a wayward wisp of ironed-straight hair off her face with those hands bejeweled by press-on nails.
Luke Wrobel came and went during his Masquerade days, yet stayed around long enough to impart a visceral impact to any role, leading or supporting. He's a true musical artist, blessed with insight and a masculine baritone that's one of the most beautiful voices around. His "La Vie en Rose," in tribute to French diva Edith Piaf, much like his "Over the Rainbow" from the Music Box's first show, Opening the Box, is a radiantly heartfelt account which is quietly devastating. Cabaret just doesn't get any better.
Well, maybe it does, thanks to the wicked wit and sterling wailing from Colton Berry, another Masquerade mini-veteran and seventh-season survivor from American Idol. He's got a punk-rocker front man's technique, a boy band's hip stylishness and a Liza Minnelli impression that'll knock you in the aisles. Manic and cocaine-crazed, his Liza is a comic Energizer bunny with nonstop quirks and motor mouth. His caricature really says everything there is to say about damaged divas. But, just as rapidly, Berry can delve into the depths of Patsy Cline's "Crazy," (in wonderful duet with Scarborough singing "At Last") and wring verifiable pathos from it.
It's quite an artistic team at Music Box. While the divas may be damaged, the show is without blemish and first class all the way, leaving you breathless with the formidable talent on display. As the Kinder and Ebb song says, if life is a cabaret, then I love a cabaret, especially this one.
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