STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Camp Cabaret

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Camp Cabaret Barbara Brussell was at the Cabaret Convention at Town Hall last week. So was Roni Charleston. Ditto Steven Lutvak, Christian Nova, Courtney Kenny, Mary Foster Conklin, and Paula West.

Barbara Brussell was at the Cabaret Convention at Town Hall last week. So was Roni Charleston. Ditto Steven Lutvak, Christian Nova, Courtney Kenny, Mary Foster Conklin, and Paula West.

Not, however, before they attended one of Betsy White and Ellie Ellsworth's Cabaret Symposia at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut.

For the last 10 Augusts, 300-plus performers have traveled far (Melbourne, Australia) and wide (from Kingston, Massachusetts to NoVato, California) to spend $1,600 and nine days with the pros. They want to know, "How did you get to be you, Margaret Whiting? Tovah Feldshuh? Julie Wilson? Julie Halston?"

This year, 35 "cabaret fellows" were selected from 152 who auditioned in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. They were people with showbiz-friendly names (Tracy Adams, Kent French, Todd Murray), with which they may or may not have been born. And they were here to learn. They knew that a Broadway musical ideally gets itself ready by going out of-town. So too would they.

You have, of course, heard people complain that musicals are artificial "because people don't walk down the street singing." Well, they sure do at the O'Neill. They walk away whistling, and humming, too. Heather Gilchreist was holding onto a tree, stretching, and singing scales. So was Barbara Brussell, who was swaying her head as if she were flagellating the air. You might have thought you were at an asylum -- especially when Lynn Loosier pointed to a yellow building and said, "I'll meet you at the white house." Loosier wasn't loose in the head. The white house is what's it's called. It's not far from the new Dina Merrill Theatre, the Edith Oliver Outdoor Theatre, and the Margo and Rufus Rose Barn, from which came the strains of "Guess Who I Saw Today?"

Guess who I did, in fact: Julie Halston, who made Mary Monica Thomas awfully happy when she said, "I loved what you did!" Cabaret convention producer Donald Smith was telling everyone how he started the Mabel Mercer Foundation because reporters were dispensing incorrect information about the legend, and he wanted to see them get their facts right. Ron Cohn, Julie Wilson's manager, informed how she keeps the gardenia in her hair. Tex Arnold (for Texas, of course; his real name is Hubert) was on one side of Margaret Whiting, on a cane from that encounter with a pothole, while on her other side was her longtime companion Jack Wrangler, whose Playbill bio stated that he was "the star of 89 rather questionable movies." And then there was Erv Raible, proprietor of Eighty-Eight's and associate producer of the symposium, telling that famous show-biz joke whose punchline is "What? And give up show business?"

Around the bend, fellows were congregating around Hickey's Cabaret, named for the guilt-ridden central character whom Eugene O'Neill created for The Iceman Cometh. This venue is not to be confused with another space named in honor of the Tony-Pulitzer-Nobel-winning playwright: Blue Gene's.

That's where everybody had the right to perform -- at least once. After their debuts came the intensive workshops and classes. Interpreting lyrics was stressed, as the fellows learned to treat words as reverentially as etymologists do. They learned not only how to move an audience, but how to move. Like around the stage.

And then the deluge of questions: "Should I include a theme for my act, or just perform a grab-bag of songs?" "Should I tell a story by linking three songs together?" and "Should I include patter in my act, or just sing?" (Mabel Mercer, it was pointed out, did hers with none, and didn't fare the worse for it.)

There was talk about the basic honesty of cabaret ("There's nothing to hide behind."), and much mention of The First Commandment:"The audience doesn't have to know anything about you when they enter, but they must know everything about you when they leave."

At dinner, time is made for fun chatter. Ellen Bullinger told of her life as a cantor. Carolyn Montgomery, a Philadelphia Mainliner, related how she recently did a New York Lottery commercial. Meanwhile, Harriet Hayward was frantically running around as asking if anyone had "music, lyrics, melody, chords, anything whatever to `My Favorite Year,'" because her accompanist only had a chord chart.

Once they finished, they repaired to various pianos to do more work. It's a camp with many a vamp coming from the buildings. I heard so many riffs from here, there, and everywhere that I was constantly playing a game of Name-That-Tune with myself. Sometimes I was fooled because of startlingly different arrangements. Connie Evingson did "Get Me to the Church on Time" with a New Orleans flavor, starting it as a funeral march, then turning it into the type of rouser heard at the wakes of certain ethnic groups.

Michael Kreutz, Michael Whalen, and T. Mychael Rambo all learned to use a mike. Said Rambo, "My instincts are more important to me than I ever gave them credit for. I've been doing it pretty right."

Jeanne MacDonald, last year's fellow and now a guest performer -- and the recipient of cabaret's two biggest honors, the MAC and Bistro awards -- said that "finding the conflict in every song" is what really made her succeed.

Said Betsy Raymond, "My training is classical, so once I made the commitment to cabaret, I knew I needed to learn more. I didn't know how to do 'Night and Day' without making it sound like Traviata. Now I do, thanks to the tool-box that was opened for me here."

And how many classes in the history of education ever had one's own peers concoct written critiques -- and then have them read aloud? But that's the trial-by-fire-and-ire O'Neill cabaret fellows endure.

"It's constructive criticism," insisted Betsy White. "Everyone's out for everyone's best interests. What's important is that they not be afraid to express their emotions. But first, they have to get in touch with those emotions, so they can find their own truths."

They certainly made every effort. Soon after class, Todd Murray and Robert Whorton were joyously singing "That's Entertainment," with noted accompanist Paul Trueblood -- interrupted when a contretemps arose on whether "Oedipus" should be pronounced EDD-ipus or EED-ipus.

Clothes make the cabaret man and woman, so the kids flock to the class given by Fred Voelpel, who designed the costumes for the original productions of No Strings, Two by Two, Sophie, Drat! The Cat! and -- no cheap jokes now -- Oh! Calcutta! He was there to help them look better on stage.

"Don't be a fashion victim," he told a bevy of eager listeners. "What we're after is independence from fashion hype. What's right for you is not what Revlon has on its mind."

Meanwhile, many a woman looked at the mirror on the wall and decided that she was the saddest gal in town. One female continually expressed dismay about the width of her thighs, though I could not begin to fathom why.

Voelpel endorsed the Maria Callas that Terrence McNally envisioned by insisting that "You must have a look." He told a heavyset, barrel chested piano-bar singer, "I love your shirt, but use suspenders, and customize the buttons. Mother-of-pearl would be nice." And he then gave him a Vermont address where such buttons can be found.

Later, Voepel divulged his opinions to me on the students. "One trouble is that they don't trust themselves enough." He stopped and reconsidered. "Or maybe not. Today, people wear to the opera what they'd would have worn to Woodstock. We're aiming to make them well-dressed all day long. What's wonderful is seeing them going through the change in a matter of days."

The symposium showed that those who teach, can. Margaret Whiting, Julie Wilson, Julie Halston, Kay Starr and a dozen others gave a concert on Friday night. Earlier in the week, Tovah Feldshuh (Tallulah) and Andrea Marcovicci (Sings Noel Coward) did full evening shows. Feldshuh, in fact, was a cabaret fellow here three years ago, believing that though she had been nominated for Tonys, she still had something to learn in the world of cabaret.

So why am I, an avowed musical theater enthusiast, devoting a column to cabaret, a second-cousin to my most beloved art form? Because cabaret is a big help in promoting show songs. Many now know "Meadowlark," "There Won't Be Trumpets," and dozens of other Broadway tunes because cabaret artists made them heard -- and famous. Says Wayman Wong of the Daily News, "Tom Andersen was the first singer to discover and popularize 'Storybook' from The Scarlet Pimpernel. He debuted it in 1993 at the Cabaret Convention. In the musical, the song had been thrown away in Act Two, but now, due to its popularity, it will open the show as part of its major revamp."

The sad irony is that during the Cabaret Convention last week, many were talking about the sad fact that Rainbow and Stars, the city's most choice venue, will be shuttering. Too bad that there isn't a Cabaret Business Symposium with the power and depth of the O'Neill that could keep such a fate from happening.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com