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The Arts

Cabaret fever
Who listens to that swoony stuff, anyway?


Orlando Cabaret Festival
Through May 16 at Mad Cow Theatre
105 S. Magnolia Ave.
Prices vary

Orlando Cabaret Festival
Through May 16 at Mad Cow Theatre
105 S. Magnolia Ave.
Prices vary

It’s the opening night of Mad Cow Theatre’s eighth annual Orlando Cabaret Festival, and the decidedly boomerish crowd is milling about in the lobby, awaiting the first show, to be performed in the small Stage Right room. There’s a preponderance of gray hairs in their 50s and older, and that’s a good thing, since the season opener is part of the “It Was a Very Good Year” series: 1960 – Vietnam, The Sound of Music and Mack the Knife. Most of us (including this writer) will have more than a passing recognition of the music from that particular time.

Soon we are ushered in and seated around a dozen or so round tables that have replaced the traditional rows of chairs. By definition “cabaret” is a café or restaurant where performers sing and dance as they move between the tables; it was a name adopted for a certain class of French taverns. Mad Cow’s explanation of “cabaret” better updates the genre: “A celebration of song and personality; musical entertainment in an intimate setting.”

It’s generally understood that an evening of cabaret is not for everyone. To enjoy its pleasures, one should have at least some knowledge of musical theater as well as an appreciation of contemporary and historical musical styles. When cabaret grew popular on the European continent in the late 1800s – and well into the 20th century – political satire and sexual innuendo were also often a part of the heady mix of cabaret offerings.  

These days, and especially in America, cabaret fare tends to be mild and demure, but that doesn’t mean it’s less entertaining than the saucy French stuff seen in old movies. What an audience member really needs to bring to a modern cabaret encounter is an appreciation of the human voice, a true delight in the ability of the spoken word to provoke the intellect and a love of music’s capacity to touch the heart and arouse emotion. 

Back to the show: The lights dim and four stylishly dressed performers – David Kelley, Krista Anderson Abbott, Kevin Kelly and Sara Catherine Barnes – and musical director and pianist Kyle Mattingly enter the stage and launch into “Got a Lot o’ Livin’ to Do!” from Bye Bye Birdie. (The King, Elvis Presley, recorded the hit version.) Pop tune after tune follow: “I’m Sorry,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “Puppy Love,” “Calendar Girl,” “Theme From a Summer Place” and so on. OK, I do know every song – solos, duets and some lovely four part harmonies staged by director Tara Anderson. The quartet finishes with selections from Broadway musicals that opened in 1960, including Camelot, The Fantasticks and the first production I ever saw on the Great White Way – Oliver! Yes, it was a very good year.

The romp through the swinging sixties has run a little long, so management has held the curtain for Stage Left’s headliner, New York cabaret singer KT Sullivan. We scoot down the hall to see her and join a crowd that’s a bit larger and a tad younger. There are no tables here, just the usual seats. Onstage, jazz pianist Jon Weber tickles the keys on a grand piano, awaiting the
star’s entrance.

Sullivan sashays into view, dressed in a chic black and gold gown with a flirty thigh-length slit up one side; her golden hair is piled high upon her head, highlighting her long and sparkly earrings. She takes hold of the microphone and all of a sudden a hint of Upper West Side Manhattan is remarkably present in the room. Tonight, Sullivan is set to explore the eclectic songbook of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, two of the 20th century’s most erudite musical theater collaborators.

In addition to well-known tunes – “Dancing in the Dark,” “You and the Night and the Music,” “A Rainy Night in Rio” – Sullivan offers several of the pair’s lesser-known gems. The hour of superb songs range from stunningly beautiful to romantic to comedic. Her vocals are rich and precise, and the elegance of her cabaret style is most delightfully on view.

It’s time to move back down the hall for the first edition of the “Songwriters’ Spotlight” in Stage Right. Local performer Kevin Kelly, with Terry Thomas at the piano, is presenting What Am I Doin? – The Songs of Maltby and Shire. The crowd is small; many in the audience likely know Kelly, but only a few of us have ever heard of Richard Maltby and David Shire. The two New York songsmiths had only a trio of hit shows: Baby, Closer Than Ever and Starting Here, Starting Here, Starting Now. Another of their shows, Big, based on the Tom Hanks’ movie, was a flop. No matter. The beauty of cabaret is in its ability to educate while entertaining, and Kelly is up to the task. Many of Maltby/Shire tunes are narrative in nature, and Kelly admirably proves that he can tell – and sing – a good story. 

The evening is not over; back to Stage Left, local wunderkind Tod Kimbro pounds away on the grand piano with a compilation of his own compositions as well as covers of popular songs. It’s the Cabaret House Party, and he and pianist Steve McKinnon are pleased to accompany any brave wannabe who wishes to climb the stage and give it a shot.

Happily, several youthful performers show some genuine talent and sing show tunes that they probably warbled on a high school or college stage. Those of us in the small audience appreciate the enthusiastic delivery. Every once in awhile a lyric is dropped, but nobody cares and everyone is charmed. 

I depart the theater energized and realize that, with two more weeks of the festival still to go, Mad Cow’s feverish passion for cabaret could open up the genre to new fans of all ages and persuasions.
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