Dallas — The art form of cabaret has been making a comeback in North Texas, with monthly and periodic performances at Sammons Center for the Arts, from Front Line Productions, at the Kitchen Café in North Dallas and, most notably, from the efforts of Denise Lee Onstage, producing a monthly cabaret series at the Women's Building in Fair Parkas well as bi-weekly events at Two Corks and a Bottle in Uptown.
Now comes an event that should contextualize the range of the art form to North Texans: The first Dallas Cabaret Festival, running Thursday to Saturday at the Women's Building in Fair Park. The event kicks off with former Dallasite Jim Caruso and his piano collaborator, Houston native Billy Stritch. For 15 years in New York, they've been hosting the popular Cast Party at NYC's Birdland, where up-and-coming and established Broadway performers pop in and partake in the fun. Liza, Patti, and most recently Jonathan Pryce, among many other stars, have been known to show up.
Jim Caruso's Cast Party in Dallas is Thursday, July 28. Then on Friday, you can catch a trio of performances from local cabaret greats Linda Petty (7 p.m.), Julie Johnson (8:30 p.m.) and Marisa Diotalevi (10 p.m.). The Festival concludes on Saturday with an All-Star Tribute to late, local cabaret legend Buddy Shanahan and the Hideaway, a former gay bar/piano bar in Uptown that hosted nightly cabarets. That showcase will feature singers such as Denise Lee, Amy Stevenson, Anton Shaw, Gary Lynn Floyd and many more.
The entire event is free, but reservations encouraged (see bottom of story for details).
We chatted with Caruso about his career and his dedication to an art form that he has helped keep alive.
TheaterJones: You spent significant time in Dallas. How did you end up here?
Jim Caruso: I moved from Pittsburgh to Dallas with my family in 1976. I lived there 'til 1990, doing tons of theater, industrial shows and nightclub work...of which there was plenty! A slew of us made our living traveling from Dallas to Houston to Little Rock playing clubs and having a ball. My vocal trio, Wiseguys, really took off in the late 80's, and we took to the road opening for Joan Rivers, Chita Rivera, and finally, Liza. That brought us to NYC, where I finally decided to live!
How did Cast Party begin in NYC?
I was doing press for a now-defunct nightclub, but unfortunately, there was nothing going on. I was writing press releases for drink specials, and wanting to jump off the roof from boredom! One Monday night, I threw a Christmas party at the club, and everyone ended up around the piano, where we sang and cavorted until the wee hours of the morning. The next day, the manager asked if we'd do it the following week...they'd never sold more food or drink! Since Monday is Broadway's dark night, some of the most talented people in town showed up to entertain each other. We kept up the fun, and within weeks, it was the place to sing and be seen! We gave the night a name, Cast Party, moved it to Birdland, one of the best music rooms in the world, and the rest is showbiz history! In a thousand years, I never thought I'd be hosting what became an extreme open mic for...15 years! It became a "come-what-mayhem"...the perfect marriage of muse and booze!
Who are some of the big names who've appeared at cast party, and some of the talent from North Texas.
Happily, I've kept up with so many of my Texas pals, and many have graced us with a performance at Birdland. Just recently, the hilarious Redneck Tenors performed (thanks to my friend Blake Davidson), to say nothing of folks like Wendy Welch, Julie Johnson, Molly Welch, Kassira, Tony Hakim, Gary Floyd, Denise Lee...on and on and on.
Are you seeing a resurgence of cabaret around the country?
People have been sounding the cabaret death-knell for decades. But cabaret is a specialized art form that will always be around. There was a time that the Great American Songbook was just known as pop music. You'd hear it on the radio. You'd see it performed on TV. Time marches on, and tastes change. But there will always be folks who want to hear well-crafted lyrics and sublime melodies performed in an intimate setting.
What is misunderstood about the art form?
To me, cabaret isn't a style of music. It's not just a place to hear songs from the first half of the 20th century. I book a weekly series at Birdland, which has included every kind of music you can imagine...jazz, swing, pop, country, bluegrass, and some of the best and brightest of the up-and-coming theater writers. And comedy...don't forget comedy! To limit the sounds being performed in a nightclub is to limit the audience. I like celebrating talent, not one particular musical taste.
What are you most looking forward to about your and Billy's appearance at Dallas Cabaret Festival?
Billy and I can't wait to get back to Texas. He's a Houstonian, after all! We are excited to see some old friends, eat some Tex-Mex, and reconnect with some of the most talented performers on the planet! I'm thrilled that Denise Lee has invited us to kick off the Dallas Cabaret Festival. She whispered the idea to me a few years ago, and what she's been able to do is inspiring. The Dallas Cast Party is going to be a love-fest! Sometimes I can't believe I get to do what I do for a living. I'm happiest when the room is packed, the energy is high, everyone is laughing and the music is swinging. It feels like there couldn't be any hate or sadness in the world. We all get to share such a happy experience.
The Dallas Cabaret Festival features the following line-up:
- July 28, 2016 at 7:30 p.m. –Jim Caruso’s Cast Party featuring Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch on piano
- July 29 2016 at 7:00 p.m. – Linda Petty - Willie or Willie Not
- July 29, 2016 at 8:30 p.m. - Julie Johnson - Not Just Country
- July 29, 2016 at 10:00 p.m. – Marisa Diotalevi - Age of Hilarious
- July 30, 2016 at 7:30 p.m. – All Star Tribute to Buddy Shanahan and the Hideaway Hosted by Denise Lee & Gary Floyd
All performances of the Cabaret Festival will take place at the Women’s Building at Fair Park. Admission to the festival and parking is free. Because large crowds are expected, reservations are strongly encouraged to guarantee a seat. You can make a reservation here.