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My theatre history, including almost all of Midnight, has incorporated very little music. We’ve had some memorable live music incorporated into plays - like Larry Dell’s guitar in THE BALLAD OF JESSIE JAMES, a duo in LITTLE THING, BIG THING and Amy Greenhalgh’s epic violin work in MY VIOLIN, MY VOICE. And have certainly paid attention to background and atmospheric music for plays But all productions had been comedies, dramas, fringe, straight plays (do they still call them that?) but no musicals.


That started to change when I saw LAKA sing at The Blue Strawberry. At that time, I had less experience with Cabaret than I had with musicals. I liked her singing, she wanted to learn more about theatre and presenting shows, and that resulted in a one-woman play, 2022’s ST. LOUIS WOMAN - LAKA bringing down the house with her portrayals of Tina Turner, Josephine Baker and others. She sang, danced, and presented a variety of celebrated artists and icons. Critics struggled with it a bit, didn’t quite know how to handle it, a couple calling it cabaret. I knew it wasn’t cabaret, it was a show! Audiences agreed for a dozen sold-out shows at .ZACK and a meteoric rise in the profile of LAKA. She’s taken that work to a variety of shows in a very busy performance schedule. I assumed and had discussed LAKA and I taking ST. LOUIS WOMAN back in a stripped down version to Blue Strawberry, but at the time LAKA wasn’t looking for that.

But it resulted in me taking in a few more cabaret shows, and learning what the scene is like. And as I was mulling that, I was working with Kelly Howe in a (straight) play, RODNEY’S WIFE. Cabaret and LAKA came up, and after I mentioned LAKA’s been singing around the country (prior to ST. LOUIS WOMAN), including a cabaret venue in New York City, Don’t Tell Mama. Kelly said she’d been a singing bartender there, had seen hundreds of cabaret shows, and had a yearning to do one herself.


One thing led to another, and we started work on JUST ONE LOOK, with Kelly singing Linda Ronstadt. Writing this thing, I instinctively went to writing a story - Ronstadt had lived the story, so it was a matter of telling it in an interesting way. And as an actor always looking for a role, I wrote myself into it as a veteran rock’n roll reporter who finally gets to meet his unrequited love and interview her.

This was the format of the show, and the show exploded right through its format. From March through August, 2023, we enjoyed twelve sold-out shows at The Blue Strawberry. People loved Kelly and the music, but there was a lot of comment about and appreciation for the story that grounded Ronstadt and her songs. People noticed it was a different way of presenting a singer and her songs.


And just as we were getting started with Ronstadt early in 2023, I spotted a Facebook post from a friend and colleague, Jennelle Gilreath Owens, saluting Judy Garland on her birthday, and vowing to do one day do a show about her. I guess I thought I was on a roll, so I got in touch with Jennelle, and said “Let’s do it.”

And it became YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU. Again, there was an emphasis on the story. Again we had a timeline - Judy’s life and career. Jennelle would tell Judy’s story, which would be interspersed with Jennelle’s story. Two women. Different experiences in life, love and show business. Interspersed with marvelous renditions of classic Garland songs by Jennelle. <

It was during the time of these two shows that people started discussing them. Audiences noticed the addition of a strong storyline to an array of songs. They noticed the difference between these shows and traditional cabaret. People put the Linda and Judy shows together, and said we’re going to watch for and come to the next one.

In the meantime, I watched more cabaret shows. While they all had some dialogue and sometimes a story, this usually served as more an intro to songs, a way to get from one to the other. It seemed little time was spent on these portions of a cabaret.

But the emphasis on story in Midnight shows led to more examination of it. Blessed by Jim Dolan, operator of the Blue Strawberry, we started terming these shows “Cabaret Theatre.” We started listing our shows in this category, and the press began to pick up the language.
We didn’t know exactly all that “Cabaret Theatre” might be, but it sounded right, and it supported the fact that these shows were somewhat different.

And another show:

As we were cruising through the Ronstadt and Garland shows, Kelly proposed another Blue Strawberry show. She and her husband had suffered a tough loss. A good friend, and Best Man at their wedding, died in a motorcycle accident in California. That naturally caused a dire mood, and as Kelly and I pondered the show, she said she wanted the show to be about doom, and she wanted to sing WE GOTTA GET OUTTA THIS PLACE, the Animals classic hit.

That’s where it started, so a script was written around that opening and around other songs that Kelly and I suggested. All were classic rock, and all were used to tell another story. But this one, unlike almost all Cabaret shows, was not real. It wasn’t about Sinatra’s songs, or Streisand’s, or the singer’s original songs. This was fiction, a newly created story and play.

We imagined a ragged, traveling Rock ’N Roll show, much like the traveling shows in the Old West, but this was occurring now (or slightly ahead in the future) traveling to the new Wild West, the burned out cities and dark landscapes of our day, bringing the light and hope of music to folks still surviving during these rough times.

Kelly was the star chanteuse, Cheyenne, who’d been on a long road and was ready to get off and maybe have a normal life. I was Professor Sunshine, the impresario of the event, who has to work to keep Cheyenne working and on the tour. After all, we were doing noble work. While we debated whether the show could continue, a number of great Rock songs were performed. And at Kelly’s urging, even I got into the musical act. While I’m not a singer, I did “perform” two numbers, and what fun it was.


A major learning experience was the value of a good band. And Midnight was so fortunate. For both JUST ONE LOOK and PROFESSOR SUNSHINE, we had the same trio. Curt Landes, piano and music director, Mark Rogers on drums and vocals, and Tom Maloney on guitar and bass. These are all extremely experienced musicians. They knew and had performed many of the shows’ songs, and brought vibes from playing with Chuck Berry, Johnnie Johnson, Glenn Campbell, John Hartford and a wide variety of St. Louis bands. They were great to work with, and got better every show.

Like these guys, the musicians in ST. LOUIS WOMAN, Corey Patterson piano and music director, and Gabe Bonfils on drums hadn’t really done theatre shows before, (they were regular backups for LAKA at club dates) and while there was a small learning curve for all of them in terms of precise cues etc., I think they were very pleased with the kind of reception they received. Not many bands get standing ovations at the end of their shows.

On the other hand, the band from YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU had plenty of theatre chops, from working with local companies like Stray Dog and New Line. Led by John Gerdes, who also played bass, the group featured his wife Lea on woodwinds, Paul Cereghino piano Clarence Newell on drums. And they and Jennelle were joined by guest singers Jeff Wright and Kimmie Kidd. Together they provided a show-ready band that provided Jennelle terrific backup and accompaniment.


Now I don’t want to trademark this “Cabaret Theatre” thing. It’s not some kind of break through, or some kind of freakish innovation. But these shows are not musicals, not even really jukebox musicals. Those are theatre pieces. They’re not cabaret. They are stories.

If it’s like anything, maybe it’s like the Black Rep’s TWISTED MELODIES, which recently moved on to the Rep. But again, that’s a theatre piece. Maybe a bit like ST. LOUIS WOMAN, but that was a theatre piece. These are stories - told live - based on or around music - presented in a cabaret setting and space.

A few people have mentioned “Oh, I was thinking about something like that.” And maybe there’s more of this somewhere. I’d be interested to know. But for now, it seems like it’s own animal. Cabaret Theatre. As long as it’s intriguing people - and me - I’m going to consider doing a few more.


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