Dallas — Talk about a warm welcome and a hot reception! Denise Lee, Dallas’ diva cabaret singer and producer, joked with fans fanning themselves at the sold-out opening night of Dallas Cabaret Festival 2018, a three-night series of Dallas- and New York-based performers at the Bath House Cultural Center’s ground level space.
White Rock Lake lapped in the background as guests assembled dinner, drinks and each other around cocktail tables in the basement space where swimmers changed clothes and showered back in the ’50s. To every audience members’ surprise, the space was surprisingly cool, thanks to the spaces fans, not to mention hand-held fans and a breeze from the lake. A laid-back quartet of sweaty musicians, led by Rob Holder on sax and Norman Williams on keyboards, amazingly project a cool jazz vibe of standards during last minute light dimmers and table shifts.
Thursday’s program, themed “Not Your Mama’s Broadway,” got underway with Angie McWhirter’s fascinating blend of country and jazz styling of “I Have a Love” from West Side Story, channeling Trisha Yearwood in a country girl inflection of the fateful rush a woman feels “when love comes your way.”
Soprano Jodi Wright told the audience she loves “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, but as a Caucasian actor, would never be cast in the role, so this was her chance to take her lullaby public. She proceeded to sing the stucco off the walls in a clear, ringing voice.
Denise joined her two guests for a hilarious trio of “Why Would a Fella Want a Girl Like That?” from Cinderella, as the svelte and gorgeous Walter Lee, in glittering drag, took his seat in the front row. Lee, a favorite Dallas singer, dancer and actor, in or out of drag, took the stage to happy applause, and began with the lyric “I’m not like the other girls in the show.” Really? The song is Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond song “Random Black Girl”; Lee changed the lyric “I’m black as hell” to “I’m gay as hell.” Later in the show, he sang a gorgeous and defiant “I’m Here” from The Color Purple.
Denise herself sang a bluesy, jazzy and totally revelatory rendition of “O What a Beautiful Morning. Definitely not your mama’s Oklahoma!
Tony-nominated Broadway star Saycon Sengbloh flew in for one night only for the show, and demonstrated why she’s landed major roles in Rent, Fela!, Aida, The Color Purple, and Hair and was the first black Elphaba in Wicked. She was also Angela in season six of TV’s Scandal. Honoring her idol Tina Turner—she auditioned for the title role in Tina: The Musical, now playing in London—Sengbloh sang a sexy and jazzy “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” followed by “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” and the audience joined in. This charismatic singer got the superb musicians going in a terrific dialogue with the sax and piano in “Defying Gravity,” her big song from Wicked. To close the show, Sengbloh sang the duet from Wicked, “For Good,” with Denise playing the Glinda role.
The festival closes Saturday night with Broadway actor T. Oliver Reid performing his cabaret Drop Me Off in Harlem (read our interview with him here).
» The Dallas Cabaret Festival gives back to non-profits on each night via donations in a raffle, in which the winner gets half of the pot, and the beneficiary gets the other half. In the interest of disclosure, Thursday night's beneficiary was Metropolitan Arts Media, Inc., the new non-profit that now runs TheaterJones.com.