Arts & Entertainment, etc. and American Cabaret Theater and Letters and Opinion

New cabaret theater is a different animal

April 20, 2009

[I'm] so glad [Lou Harry] reviewed Shannon Forsell's effort to revive American Cabaret Theatre, and I wish her nothing but luck in the new endeavor. However, I bet you didn't pay $100 to go to the opening (I could be wrong), because I sure couldn't afford it.

Plus, I think it is a mistake to call this American Cabaret Theatre when it really is in the piano bar tradition of cabaret that is popular in New York and Las Vegas, and not the vision that Claude McNeal brought to his American Cabaret Theatre when he first came to Indianapolis in 1990.

I, for one, will miss the ambitious revues that McNeal mounted in the early days of American Cabaret Theatre at the Athenaeum. His vision was for a form of entertainment that traced back to the original cabarets of France, with their political and social commentary on history and culture. His brand of cabaret came through Weimar Germany (can you imagine the "Cabaret" kick line in the Connoisseur Room?) and the British music hall.

In Indianapolis, he was trying to revive that old tradition. Some of his shows were extraordinary. Off the top of my head I remember "Hollywood Nights," a tuneful history of the movie industry that was full of information (you could learn something from it); "Take This Job," where I first fell in love with Dave Ruark as a singer; "Street Corner Harmony," tracing the history of doo-wop through an early Indianapolis group; the wonderfully silly send-up of "The Fabulous Fifties," and their own "Cabaret Street Song," tracing the history of European cabaret and bringing it to America.

True, there were some fabulous flops, and American Cabaret Theatre never was as good as when Forsell herself, Brenda Williams, Peggy Chambers, Bob Motz and Jerry Panatieri were among its major performers. American Cabaret Theatre was about producing original revues that combined music, song, dance and visuals with an intellectual and satiric component. That is not a part of the new American Cabaret Theatre that Forsell and company have created. It's the theater that's missing.

This is "cabaret" in the piano-bar sense of the word, which is fine. I'm sure with the lineup they have announced, that it will be very successful. But it shouldn't be confused with the old American Cabaret Theatre. They are not the same thing.

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Marion Garmel
former theater critic, Indianapolis Star

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