Arden’s New Cabaret Series Kicks Off With Jeff Coon
I love a loud, splashy musical as much as anybody – but I really lost my heart to the cabaret. It, too, is a theater form – but a small, varied, and rather odd one, embracing a wide range of performance styles.
Most of the famous cabaret artists are singers, but even among them, styles differ. Some (Barbara Cook, for example) are powerhouse vocalists; others have more limited resources, but are master storytellers through song. (I’d put Mabel Mercer and Elaine Stritch in this category.)
The repertoire is similarly diverse. Cabaret includes artists who specialize in what we used to call the Great American Songbook – works by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and more recently, Stephen Sondheim. Other performers venture into more contemporary, sometimes offbeat material.
But what I think all cabaret shares is a sense of intimate connection between artist and audience. The rooms are small, and there’s no fourth wall. No wonder it touches us in such a personal way.
This winter and spring, there’s good news for cabaret lovers – the Arden Theatre Company is offering a four-concert series, to be done in their new Hamilton Family Arts Center space. First up is Jeff Coon (December 11-13), to be followed by Joilet Harris (February 12-14), and Kristine Fraelich (April 22-24). The final program (June 17-19) is still TBD.
Coon, Harris and Fraelich will be familiar to many, since all have distinguished associations with the Arden Theatre. The cabaret series’ artistic director, Matt Decker (he’s also the Arden’s associate artistic director), emphasizes this point – “the Arden is always interested in ongoing conversations between artists and audiences. This program not only provides more opportunities for our artists, it also gives our audiences a chance to see them in a new light.”
I ask Decker how the series came about, and he says a key factor is the new venue. “With the Hamilton Center, we have the perfect space. It’s just 100 seats – the intimacy is awesome!” What does Decker hope audiences will get out of this? “I hope they’ll realize new things about our artists – see them in a new context. There’s a lot of spontaneity and unpredictability to cabaret.”
Doesn’t that put a lot of pressure on a performer? Decker agrees – “Absolutely. Who’s brave enough do it?”
Jeff Coon is, for one – and he’s a master of the form, having developed a successful summer season in Cape May. He also knows the complexities. “The two aspects of cabaret that most excite and terrify me are, first, permission to sing and say whatever I want (I’m not working from someone else’s script), and second, the opportunity to relate to an audience as just me,” he says.
Of course, I point out, Arden audiences certainly “know” you, in a sense. He agrees, adding, “I’m very interested in addressing the relationship I’ve had with audiences over the 20-plus years I’ve been working in Philly.”
Addressing that relationship will involve his musical choices, and Arden cabaret audiences will hear Jeff in repertoire he hasn’t explored before. “The more I talked about what I wanted to do with this show,” he says, “the more I realized that doing ‘nightclub’ stuff was exactly what I wanted to avoid. Not because I don’t love that material, because I do.” (In fact, that’s a cornerstone of his summer series repertoire, where he often also performs with an orchestra.) “Here, I want to really connect myself authentically with the audience and the material in this particular show, in a different way.”
How will that connection manifest itself musically? Jeff is uncharacteristically mum about his song choices, but he drops a few hints in the form of a list of composers. In addition to some I might have predicted (Sondheim, of course – also Maury Yeston, William Finn, and Cy Coleman) are a few surprises – Rufus Wainwright, Aimee Mann, Pete Mills.
I ask Jeff what he hopes his audiences will take away from this experience. “A better sense of who I am as a person, not just a performer … and maybe [the audience can] see some of themselves in my experiences, and we can all feel less disconnected.”
My last question, to Matt Decker, is about the future – what would he like to see next? “In my dream world,” he answers, “it is not only the favorite artists you know – the cabaret series might include artists, maybe bands forming in Philly, and also more avant-garde themes. It could be a wonderful venue for up-and-coming young artists. There are so many ideas – right now, I’m waiting to see how this works out. “
I am, too!
For more information about the Arden Cabaret, go here.
David Fox teaches theater and runs academic programs at the University of Pennsylvania. For 16 years, he was theatre critic for the Philadelphia City Paper; he has also written for The New York Times and other publications. He also blogs on arts topics at recliningstandards.org.
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