Fort Worth — With the increase in the amount of cabaret in town — at venues like Sammons Center for the Arts, Uptown Theater in Grand Prairie, the Balcony Club, the Kitchen Café, and Alexandre’s on Cedar Springs, and showcases programmed/led by folks like Denise Lee, Liz Mikel and Amy Stevenson — Casa Mañana Theatre in Fort Worth has created something that was much needed: a theatrical space specifically for cabaret.
That it happens to be attached to Casa’s famed geodesic dome theater (the “jiffy pop” as it’s called by anyone who’s been under the dome), North Texas’ longest-running venue for musical theater, is the cherry on top of this silver, futuristic sundae.
The space, called the Reid Cabaret Theatre (named for longtime Casa board member and supporter Rusty Reid), is in Casa’s former administrative offices, and the staffers now have their own swanky digs about another 30 degrees clockwise on the circumference of the dome. The Reid has tables and chairs seating 70, and wait staff serving cocktails, beer and wine — but not food, which gives it more of a speakeasy feel. Design, from light fixtures to banner photos of singers, nods to the 1950s vibe of the building.
The Reid opened in January, and its second set of performances happened this weekend with singer-songwriter and musical composer/lyricist Ben Clark, and his partner, actress Dee Roscioli. She was last seen at Casa as Eva Peron, and holds the record for the most performances of Elphaba in the hit Wicked, on Broadway and on tour. The soprano’s résumé is filled with heavy-hitter roles like Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Marian Paroo in The Music Man and Golde, Yente and Fruma-Sarah in the most recent Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof (as understudy/replacements).
For musical theater lovers, Roscioli is the bigger name; but this show has Clark as top billing, featuring Roscioli. If you’re looking for her to belt out some show tunes from the aforementioned shows, this is not the time for that.
Clark, who leads a band called The Long Shadows, which has released one EP, performed some of his own songs and a two covers — Chris Stapleton’s “Drunkard’s Prayer” and Radiohead’s “Creep” — but the bulk of the concert featured songs from his musical The Circus in Winter, which was performed in 2014 at Goodspeed Musicals (book by Hunter Foster and Beth Turcotte), and his in-development musical Skin and Bones (book by Andrew Kramer).
Playing guitar and backed by local musicians James McQuillen on keyboards, Rex Bozarth on bass guitar and Mike Drake on drums, Clark was engaging with the audience, always putting the songs in context. That was even better when Roscioli jumped in to explain what’s happening with each song from the two musicals, such as “Dixianna” from The Circus in Winter.
When explaining the characters in Skin and Bones, about a hitman and a little girl in the Old West who find a dinosaur skeleton while burying a body, Clark amusingly added “back in the Old West you could have a LinkedIn profile that says ‘I kill people’ and that would be fine.”
Clark’s voice is appealing, and he’s able to write vivid story songs, and his skill with phrasing and lyrics is reminiscent of Jason Mraz. He closes his eyes when he sings, and has formidable chops on an amped acoustic guitar. My favorite songs were “Jackrabbits” and “Cinnamon and Saffron” from Skin and Bones, “Recognition” and “Runnin’ to Get What’s Mine” from The Circus in Winter and “Gorgeous,” a song he wrote about his sister, who is five year’s younger than him.
As often as Radiohead is cited as a favorite popular music band by musical theater peeps — Sondheim has professed his love, and Betty Buckley has covered “High & Dry” — their early hit “Creep” is a lesser song from an incredible catalog, but Clark gave it is own spin, making it even creepier than Thom Yorke does.
The banter between Clark and Roscioli was natural and funny, but while this was a show about him, it would’ve been nice to hear her offer something from a better known musical, perhaps with a Ben Clark arrangement.
Casa’s Reid Theatre is a welcome addition. The summer/fall cabaret series hasn’t been announced, but I’m told that Fort Worth native turned Broadway vet Jay Armstrong Johnson will be on the roster. Now, if we can get regular cabaret happenings in there and make it a space for the local talent as well, it’ll be even better.