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LOU'S VIEWS: Come (back) to the Cabaret

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Lou Harry

This week, the reborn American Cabaret Theatre and a symphonic circus draw packed houses.

I haven't heard anyone else say it in print, so let me put it right out there: American Cabaret Theatre was often an embarrassment. That isn't to say the long-standing Indy theater company didn't feature some outstanding singers. It's just that, for years, these singers were trapped in a format that claimed to reflect the art of cabaret, but—in my see-a-show/skip-a-few experience—more often felt like a pretentious cruise ship revue.

ACT's former home, the Athenaeum, is a glorious building. But its sizable stage and spillover-from-the-biergarten acoustics were never suitable to the forging of emotional connections with the performers. When the company attempted to branch into more traditional musicals, the results were, at worst, unwatchable ("Eyes") and, at best, good enough ("The Full Monty").

Well, American Cabaret Theatre has been transformed.

And the March 31 premiere concert of the new Cabaret at the Connoisseur Room (115 E. Ohio St.)—combined with the announced lineup of upcoming performances—gives me the confidence to say Indy hasn't just gotten an arts and entertainment upgrade. It's also has gotten a new, top-notch venue presenting world-class talent in a genre that, in these parts, has gone largely unexplored.

In short: Wow.

The cabaret concept is fairly simple. A singer. A microphone. An accompanist or two. Small tables. A bar.

A cabaret act differs from a lounge act in that, when the music starts, attention is focused. And there's a significant cover charge.

Cabaret differs from a concert in that, ideally, an intimacy forms between the artist and the audience. That happened on March 31, when Jil Aigrot performed an evening of songs associated with French star Edith Piaf.

Now, I'd venture to guess that most of the people attending the packed-to-the-walls, $100-a-ticket kickoff concert (future ones will be $40, $30 at the bar) hadn't heard of Aigrot before being hit up for a ticket sale. I'd further say that a significant number hadn't heard of Piaf. That's not an insult to the audience. It's an understanding that cabaret singers are not household names.

It's important to acknowledge that. Because if this cabaret is to succeed here, it won't succeed because the audiences have already heard of the headliners. Even the top of the top in this field aren't known to general audiences and are unlikely to fill the house on their own. What will fill the house is a faith that ACT's new managing director, Shannon Forsell, and her board and crew know talent when they hear it, have the ability to bring it to our doorstep, and will present it in a first-class way that's worth the ticket price.

Disregarding a few first-night microphone problems, they did that with Aigrot, who sang primarily in French. Animated without resorting to miming, with brink-of-tears eyes and a clarity of voice that conveyed the passion and pain and resilience of the songs, Aigrot communicated even if the language barrier blocked their literal meaning. Charmingly soft-spoken as she attempted some English to set up the songs, she did what strong cabaret artists do—she brought the lucky attendees along on a personal musical journey. And her two accompanists—one on piano, the other drums, accordion, xylophone, and even some vocals—were ideal.

As to the atmosphere—which is as important to the future success of ACT as its opening performer—well, I'll just say readers should start booking wedding anniversary outings now. (See sidebar for upcoming headliners. A program of local acts is also promised soon, along with a poetry and music series.) With candlelit tables, a sizable but unobtrusive bar off to the side, an imposing wine cabinet, and even some comfy couch seating, ACT's new digs are luxurious without being haughty.

Frankly, it's amazing that this is happening here, in these times. In the process of downsizing, ACT has become, well, significant.

Here's hoping it's embraced. See you at the new Cabaret.

More packed houses could be found at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's "Cirque de la Symphonie" pops concerts March 27-29.

For the most part, the stunning acrobatic visuals partnered beautifully with the music, particularly when the action took place in the air space above the stage. By the end, though, the acts—and the frequent, hard-earned applause—upstaged the music. The ISO held its own, though, on the circus-free pieces—the exception being the would-be-wacky Don Sebesky arrangement of Stephen Sondheim's "Comedy Tonight," which thudded like an unfunny clown trying too hard.

Still, a memorable night that no doubt won over many to the joys of the ISO. Another win for the band and Pops Director Jack Everly, who once again lent significantly personal charm as host.

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