Monday, March 29, 2010

Cabaret Old and New - Songs, Stories and a little Burlesque

Mighty Tiny (April 22-24) is an unusual choice for Cabaret, yet totally brilliant!

Cabaret takes many forms. Its range includes singers who keep the embers of great ballads alive, to the somewhat naughty Kit Kat Klub portrayed in the show and film Cabaret. But lately it is being reinvented especially by The Performance Lab in Boston. We'll get to them in a moment, but first some background.

Cabaret as an art form was born in the clubs of France and Germany in the late 1800's and became burlesque when it was transplanted to the United States. Baggy pants comedy soon gave way to fans, feathers and strippers and the last vestiges of that form died in the latter half of the 1900's. In Boston burlesque and pasties died when the Old Howard Casino in Scollay Square was razed to make room for Government Center. The Naked Eye bar continued the strippers, but not the art.

The late Nancy LaMott was the greatest cabaret artist of recent times.

Cabaret as personal music evolved separately. It sprung up in nightclubs and other small venues where the ladies like Eartha Kitt purred the lyrics, and men like Tom Anderson could bring tears to your eyes . It was Nancy LaMott and Michael Feinstein and it tended to bloom in upscale supper clubs like the Hotel Carlyle and the Rainbow Room of New York City,

Many Broadway stars found sustenance in cabaret when between shows. In Boston there was Blinstrub's until it burned down, and Freddy Taylor's Paul's Mall and sometimes even the Jazz Workshop. Lenny Sogoloff's Lenny's on the Turnpike even offered a chanteuse or two over the years.

But less visible have been the experimental cabaret practitioners like drag queens, experimentalists, and those who deliver acidic social commentary. For every Peggy Lee there has been a Tom Lehrer.

In my mind, Cirque du Soleil has its roots more in cabaret than circus. All Cirque shows feature a smallish band and live singers who act as the thread that holds the whole colorful tapestry together. And Baggy pant comedians? Well, more like clowns trained by Grotowski, and very sophisticated.

Cabaret then is a living art, still evolving. This spring and summer we will see a bit more of it in the Berkshires than in seasons past. In fact, 2010 kicks off with a Cabaret night at Taylor's in North Adams on April 16 with an open mic hosted by local favorite Katie Johnson. Katie and I are having an email discussion of the art form right now, which we will publish in April.

Creators of New Cabaret: (Top L) Jason Slavick, Artistic Director, (Top R) Rachel Hock, Artistic Associate and Webmaster, (BL) Kate Smolik, Production Manager and (BR) Josh Mocle, Media Coordinator

But now, to the main feature of this story, The Performance Lab, a new experimental theatre company based in Boston. They represent the new directions that cabaret as theatre is traveling.

Certainly The Berkshire Fringe has nibbled at the edges of this new form, as have many other groups. But the concept of The Performance Lab goes beyond anything most of us have seen before.

They will open their inaugural show, Le Cabaret Grimm –on April 8th in Boston.

Their first week features The Hubbub - a variety of performers drawn from the rich underground performance scene in Boston. The plan is to rotate the performers each week. Included are singers of songs, performers of poetry, and practitioners of burlesque, circus and more. They call this "a punk cabaret fairy tale (sans fairies)."

Johnny Blazes has a fluid sexual identity.

Le Cabaret Grimm and The Hubbub runs at The Boston Center for the Arts, April 8-24 in the Plaza Theatre. Performances times are Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. The Hubbub will be hosted by its co-producer Johnny Blazes, a Boston-based cabaret performer whose gender-bending shows have toured throughout the US.

“We’re bringing a lot of cool things together in one place,” says Artistic Associate and Hubbub co-producer Rachel Hock. “There are so many exciting fringe happenings in Boston. This showcases what not a lot of people know about.”

The Performance LAB has partnered with Johnny Blazes to work with the fringe community. “Johnny has sharp insights putting together shows like this and is deeply connected to the alternative scene,” says Hock.

“I’m excited to work with some of my favorite people on the performance scene,” says Blazes. “It’s an opportunity to bridge two worlds that are important to me: the theatre scene and the variety arts scene.”

Lolita LaVamp lends some transgender talent to the new cabaret April 15-17.

The mission of The Performance LAB includes broadening the live entertainment offerings in Boston and expanding the audience for them. The LAB does this by bringing different audiences together and exposing them to new things.

“Boston has a history of being segregated – racially, geographically, culturally and sexually. We think of ourselves as an enlightened city, but to be that you have to experience things beyond your own comfort zone,” says Blazes. “When different communities interact there’s learning and exchange. That’s paramount to becoming a better society. We can’t call ourselves ‘the Greater Boston Community’ if we don’t have something connecting us across lines.”

Here's the line up for the three different shows:

Week 1 April 8-10

Walter Sickert & the ARmy of BRoken Toys.

Walter Sickert & the ARmy of BRoken Toys, combining music and performance art they create a SteamCrunk, Organic-Industrial experience. "Really, any fan of the Velvet Underground, the Dresden Dolls, or those haunted merry-go-rounds that turn up in horror movies shouldn't miss Walter and the Toys, who elegantly merge the essence of all three" (The Boston Globe)

Jojo, The Burlesque Poetess, a personal commissionable wordsmithy known for her Betty Boop antics and "accidentally fanny flashing".

JoJo is a burlesque poetess. You gotta have a gimmick, right?

Madge of Honor, a queer performance artist who tells stories through drag, burlesque, movement, innovative costuming, clowning and poetry. Madge of Honor is a regular performer with the Femme Show and at Traniwreck, Jacque’s Cabaret, the Middle East, Great Scott, and the Midway.

Week 2 April 15-17

The Boston Typewriter Orchestra

The Boston Typewriter Orchestra, a collective endeavor which engages in rhythmic typewriter manipulation combined with elements of performance, comedy and satire. BTO has been featured on NBC Weekend Today, WCVB Chronicle, FOX 25 News, Fox Cable News, National Public Radio, live on WMBR (MIT) and in several major newspapers.

Ms. Lolita LaVamp, a proud Puerto Rican transgender female Burlesque Artist. She has worked as a professional domme and was featured in the PBS Lesbian and Gay television news magazine "In The Life." She has also performed for Boiling Point Burlesque and The Slutcracker: A Christmas Burlesque. Ms. LaVamp has been involved in HIV Prevention and Education for the past 14 years, advocating for LGBTQ individuals.

Week 3 April 22-24

Mighty Tiny, a journey into the depths of musical madness guided by six masked lunatics playing tunes dating back to the golden days of Tin Pan Alley - those days where songwriting meant more than a weepy man with a guitar at your local coffee house.

Dominique Immora, shades of Cirque!

Dominique Immora, a hula hooping, fire eating, burlesque dancing, stilt walking, poi spinning, whip cracking and aerial hoop artist. Dominique, is one of the longest running fire acts in the northeast. She has won a number of accolades, including Best Solo at the 2007 Boston Burlesque Expo, and appears on Season 4 of America's Got Talent. She has been called "a one woman Cirque du Soleil" by the Boston Phoenix.

Tickets are on sale at or by calling 617-933-8600, $20 for students and $35 for adults. Discount promotions are available from, through Twitter and Facebook. To preview the music, see a webseries of the show or for more information go to

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Berkshire Beat is set to shake things up

Proposed cover design by Kaitlyn Squires.

The first issue isn't even printed yet,and already the dream of an alternative to traditional arts coverage has caught fire.

Berkshire Beat has surfaced, via Facebook, and it has already turned people on to art and performance events that escape the attention of traditional media like the Berkshire Eagle. It is shaping up as the place to find out about the local, the truly experimental and exceptional that capture the attention of the younger demographic from high school and college to twenty-somethings.

What is amazing about the development, is that you can watch it happening in real time by visiting their Facebook page, largely fueled by the efforts of Caleb Hiliadis, a Waconah High School Senior with a journalistic career in mind. But he is the first to tell you that he is nothing more than one of many people - some 1500 to date - that are pushing this concept ahead.

As anyone who toils in the arts and cultural reporting scene can tell you, one person can not possibly keep up with everything that is happening in the ever expanding Berkshire cultural world. We have splendid coverage of the BSO and other "top" arts institutions, but the local scene, where the creative ferment really takes place, barely rates a mention in the weekly Advocate which has rested on its laurels for years. It could have been an alternative in the spirit of the Boston Phoenix, but instead tends to play it safe, with a fuzzy focus that results in half its coverage being spaghetti suppers and face painting, and half listings in type so small as to be unreadable. The only redeeming features are their writers Peter Bergman and Judith Fairweather.

Proposed cover design by Kathryn Collins.

Of the local media, Berkshire Living, Rural Intelligence and Berkshire Fine Arts do the best job of covering all the arts, including classical, jazz and rock yet they miss much of what is happening right under our noses. Too many events, too few reporters. (Disclosure: I've written some one hundred articles for Berkshire Fine Arts in the past couple of years and - until I began my blogs - was part of the problem.)

There are dozens of other outlets that specialize in various niches. Foremost among these is Gail Sez, written by Gail Burns who covers theatre not only in the Berkshires, but adjoining states, and rarely misses even the smallest theatre company.

With Berkshire Beat, in essence everyone becomes a reporter, the readers will also be out there looking for new things going on. The key here is that at some point mediocrity will have to be weeded out, and a really sharp editor is going to have to watch the spelling, syntax and personal pronouns.

The major force behind this publication, which will also have a strong online presence, is Philip LaPointe, Jr. of Lee, an Iraq war veteran with a vision. There is an active advisory board, and others involved include Brad Steele. It is their hope to launch a prototype edition in the next month or so to test the waters. Ultimately they foresee a controlled circulation distribution plan, with biweekly issues being sent to 15,000 readers.

Because they will focus on a lot of the newer, emerging bands, artists and writers - they have a niche for poetry and visual arts in their plans - their vision is wide ranging. Since the cost of print is high, and requires major advertiser support, it is likely that the magazine will be a tool that will bring even more people to their website and the content there.

There is a board which is doing the planning, but at this point it is all open concept.

I submitted a cover design as well.

For a peek at the ongoing birthing pains, drop in to their Facebook page or sign up for their newsletter.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Boston's Theatre Scene - Then and Now

The Publick Theatre's Entertaining Mr. Sloane at the Boston Center for the Arts is wonderful. It stars an all-British cast. Pictured are the great Sandra Shipley with newcomer Jack Cutmore-Scott.

When I arrived in Boston in 1960 after an adolescence in the New York City area, I was shocked to find there wasn't very much in the way of a Boston theatre scene. The Colonial, Shubert and Wilbur Theatres were often lit with pre-Broadway tryouts and national touring companies fresh from Broadway, but the experimental, the daring and the surprising little companies were nowhere to be seen.

For a long time there was just the Charles Playhouse which made a valiant effort, and soon after that the Theatre Company of Boston which provided brief, brilliant flashes of creativity in the midst of an otherwise non-existent theatre community.

Al Pacino at last year's Norton Awards accepting a posthumous award for the late Paul Benedict. Photo Bill Brett from the Boston Globe Story.

Some of the luminaries were actors like Olympia Dukakis, Paul Benedict and Al Pacino. Because of the scarcity of real theatres, Pacino ended up performing Richard III in the sanctuary of the Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street.

A decade later I would be doing the marketing for the Pocket Mime Theatre in a little candy box of a theatre in the chapel of that same church, at a desk in Pacino's old dressing room. The little mime theatre even enticed Marcel Marceau to attend a performance and had a nice five year run until the fire inspectors discovered it.

They closed it down.

The late 60's and early 70's saw the birth of several additional resident theatres . Smaller companies like Lyric Stage (then on Charles Street) and the Publick Theatre struggled, and amazingly, survived.

But the Boston Repertory Theatre, The Proposition and Boston Shakespeare Company were brief shooting stars that burned out. They made valiant attempts to sink their roots into the cultural soil only to be rebuffed by the cultural elite who shoveled buckets of money to the BSO and MFA. Even the fledgeling Boston Ballet and ICA were treated like foundlings. It was a hardscrabble existence.

Arts Boston sells tickets in person and increasingly, on line too. Their second Bostix booth, designed by Graham Gund has become as much of a landmark as Copley Square itself.

But from this hardy bunch of pioneers grew Boston's first theatre league, which over time morphed into StageSource. Arts Service Organizations began to emerge, to help develop the management and financial expertise that artists needed. The Artists Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Alliance are long gone, but Arts Boston remains. Perhaps that organization - which I ultimately headed for a decade in the 80's - knew that the most important thing for an artist is an audience. And the money ticket buyers bring. It's director, Catherine Peterson continues the Sisyphean task of finding warm paying bodies to fill otherwise cold, empty seats.

Soon Boston's two major colleges established the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard and the Huntington Theatre at BU. ART formed a resident company of actors who stayed with Robert Brustein (artistic director) for decades. Eventually he left and the brilliant Diane Paulus prefers rotating casts to fill the roles as needed. Meanwhile, Peter Altman played it safe at the Huntington, which mostly cast its productions from the New York pool of actors. His successors have drawn from both Boston and New York auditions.

Nicholas Martin was the Huntington Company's gift to Williamstown Theatre Festival. Here he is seen with actor Victor Garber.

Today there is a deep and significant reservoir of top talent which lives and works in Boston, although who can say "no" to an offer to go to Broadway, or even off-Broadway. Indeed, many of the ART and Huntington shows, especially under NIcholas Martin, made the transistion to New York. Martin left the Huntington and currently is planning the Williamstown Theatre Festival's summer season.

To my way of thinking, quite a few of what we used to call Boston's small theatres have grown to become mid-sized ones, with million dollar budgets to match. Foremost among them is Lyric Stage which, under the guidance of Spiro Veloudos, has cannily chosen shows with wide appeal and interest and kept its prices affordable. As my interview with him a year ago revealed, he is both creative and cautious.

The Adding Machine: The Musical from Speakeasy Stage is riveting.

On a recent trip to Boston I had the pleasure of seeing the latest work of the Publick Theatre, Entertaining Mr. Sloane (Review here), and the New England premiere of The Adding Machine: A Musical (Review here) at Speakeasy Stage Company. The quality of the productions was uniformly excellent, a testament to the growing strength of both these companies and our local talent pool.

Speakeasy follows The Adding Machine with Trailer Park: The Musical beginning April 3.

Lyric Stage opens Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill March 26, and closes its season with Blithe Spirit starting May 7.

Other companies that have continued to impress are the New Rep which opens Opus on March 28 and will follow with The Hot Mikado beginning May 2.

The Nora Theatre Company opens From Orchids to Octopi on March 31.

Zeitgeist Stage Company has their final production of the season, Farragut North slated to open on April 30 .

Le Cabaret Grimm from The Performance Lab.

And even as these companies continue to grow and develop their own theatrical locovore following, new companies are born with startling frequency. Among the most interesting of the new crop is The Performance LAB, an experimental theatre company. It will present the world premier of Le Cabaret Grimm, a punk-cabaret musical April 8-24 at the Boston Center for the Arts. The show is written and directed by Artistic Director Jason Slavick, with original music by Cassandra Marsh and choreography by Michelle Chasse. It will be their first show.

What is unusual is that it seems to be hip to the newest trends of younger audiences to mix their media. Slavick promises "a wickedly ironic sensibility" in a show that incorporates Cabaret, Steam Punk, Burlesque and old fashioned theatricality. The music reflects such influences as Tom Waits, Ska, R&B and the Dresden Dolls. “We’re using these fun, contemporary styles to draw in the audience” says Slavick, “but we’re combining them with classic tales that have a universal quality and resonate deeply.”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Interviewing Jack Cutmore-Scott about "Entertaining Mr. Sloane"

An Actor Prepares.

When young actor Jack Cutmore-Scott, 22, strides onto the stage at the Boston Center for the Arts on March 11 in Entertaining Mr. Sloane, it's going to be a magical moment.

Bostonians will finally get to see this promising performer, a Harvard Senior, in the flesh. For all his theatrical credentials, this is really his first public professional appearance in the USA. The Publick Theatre is known for its crafty casting, and Cutmore-Scott not only looks the role of Mr. Sloane, he promises to follow in the footsteps of others who have used the role (Maxwell Caulfield and Chris Camack) to make lasting impressions on audiences.

Only 22 and already Jack Cutmore-Scott is a triple threat: actor, writer, director.

We talked with Jack via phone a few days ago as the rehearsal process got underway, and he is clearly excited about the professionals he is working with - director Eric Engel, and a superb group of actors which includes Nigel Gore (Ed), Dafydd Rees (Kemp), and the renowned Sandra Shipley (Kath).

Jack grew up in the Chelsea section of London, not far from Sloane Square. Perhaps it was a prescient sign that the role of Mr. Sloane in Joe Orton's comedy would one day be his.

He arrived at Harvard in 2006 to begin his studies and has undertaken a whirlwind slate of extracurricular activities - not just theatre, but film and television too. In a few short years he has performed in a dozen plays, directed or assisted in six others, and written (or helped to write) four original scripts. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Jack Cutmore Scott has racked up a lot of time on stage, and off. Here he gets drenched for a film.

About a year ago, he took on the title role in Shakespeare's Hamlet, following his earlier outing as Henry V. 2007 is remembered for his Max in Martin Sherman's Bent about the fate of gays in the holocaust. Most recently he appeared in Sartre's The Flies as Orestes.

But Cutmore-Scott is far more than just an actor. Last summer he wrote, directed and appeared in Breaking Up at the Loeb Experimental Theatre. It is clear that it is not just acting and applause that appeals to him, but the whole concept of theatre as a collaborative craft.

As a Senior, he is looking forward to graduating this year, and while his studies have concentrated on English and American Literature and Language, it is the theatrical side of his Harvard education that appeals.

Jack Cutmore-Scott as Mr. Sloane is irresistible. Susanne Nitter photo.

"Once I graduate I would like to continue doing what I have been doing here. Acting of course, but also directing and writing. I will likely head to New York City to try my luck there. But for me it is as much about making shows happen as actually being on the stage," he said. With this sort of wider view in mind, Jack is unlikely to remain available for long.

Jack's C.V. is already chock-a-block full of amazing credentials. After training with the British National Youth Theatre, he did a year-long stint at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts before taking his original play, Making a Scene, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was well received.

But, we wondered, how did this all start.

"My first audition was almost by accident, and I ended up with a walk-on, walk-off role. But it introduced me to the world of theatre. Just watching the rehearsal process was the most amazing experience for me. Observing how the director worked with the actors revealed what interesting people they were," he said. Indeed, for many people seeing theatre people at work picking at the words, looking beneath the surface of things opens the mind to an expository way of looking at life, reading between the lines and seeing what is really going on. It is addictive.

"You pull it all apart, and then put it back together when you finally do it for real on's exciting," noted the actor. "And I find that often you get more out of the rehearsal process than you do onstage. You learn about yourself."

A rare moment to himself.

We turned to the Joe Orton play. Directed by Eric Engel, Entertaining Mr. Sloane  revolves around the charming, enigmatic Sloane as he arrives to rent a room from Kath (Sandra Shipley), a lonely, delusional landlady, in the junkyard house she shares with her declining father, Kemp (Dafydd Rees). A handsome opportunist, Sloane quickly ingratiates himself, entering into seductions offered by both Kath, and her estranged brother Ed (Nigel Gore), who soon employs Sloane as his driver. Sloane’s past misdeeds and the dueling affections within the family soon collide, leading to a desperate act that proves the limit of his charms, and reveals the ruthless and cunning strategies that Sloane’s victims will engage in to preserve their unique arrangement.

The delusional landlady Kath (Sandra Shipley) and cunning yet charming new tenant Mr. Sloane (Jack Cutmore-Scott) test all boundaries at their first meeting in Joe Orton’s dark comedy Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Susanne Nitter photo.

I wondered if the play, first performed in 1964 has stood the test of time. "It's still very contemporary, and still speaks to us," said Cutmore-Scott. "Nevertheless," he says, "I am still grappling with the role of Mr. Sloane. He is a very fascinating and bombastic character. As we work through it scene to scene I keep discovering something new. I try to remember it all, and Eric (Engel) has been terrific in helping me resolve the motivations behind his actions. They are, after all, pretty crazy characters and they do some pretty crazy things."

According to Engel, “The play is almost a farce, in which all four characters, because they are desperately lonely, allow their domestic, social and animal instincts to become irrevocably intertwined.” He adds, “Orton eliminates the line between the obvious and the Freudian, making things all the more confusing and delightful. Entertaining Mr. Sloane is a perfect play for today's audiences, who can explore sexuality with intrigue and open minds, rather than fear and judgment.”

The young actor seems to balance his demanding studies and extracurricular activities pretty well, though there can be an element of surrealism to them. "There are moments I feel a bit like a sponge, and others when people look at me like I am nuts. When I am riding the T for example, I am usually immersed deeply in my studies, and I tend to mumble absent-mindedly as I am stuffing material into my brain. If I glance up, the looks I get from the other passengers can be quite unexpected," he laughs.

"Sometimes I will take out my cellphone to cover, but when you are actually underground, and the phones won't work I just have to live with the looks."

Three different moods in one day.

"During my freshman year, I had a different problem. I would talk to people and they would look at me blankly because of my accent. But after four years, things are getting better, and I can pretty well understand American, too," he chortles. Cutmore-Scott once told the Harvard Crimson that the english accent is "my unfortunate and totally incurable speech impediment which I’ve had since I was a baby. But it is also my sexiest physical trait."

Entertaining Mr. Sloane is set in England, so his accent should come in quite handy in the months ahead.

Who knows, he might even write a play about it someday.


Under the leadership of Producing Director Susanne Nitter and Artistic Director Diego Arciniegas, The Publick Theatre has experienced a renaissance, garnering critical acclaim, including for last fall's Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf with Tina Packer, Founding Artistic Director of the Berkshire's own Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.

Others involved in the production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane include Dahlia Al-Habieli (Sets), Kenneth Helvig (Lights), Molly Trainer (Costumes), and John Doerschuk (Sound).

Entertaining Mr. Sloane runs from March 11 to April 3, 2010 at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street in Boston's South End. Performances are Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets: $33.00 - $37.50. For tickets contact the box office at 617.933.8600 or order online at