Bistro Bits: When Theatre Is Cabaret (and Vice Versa)–Three Shows that Blur the Lines

May 13, 2024

One afternoon a few years ago, I sat in a restaurant next to a once-Tony-nominated performer who—not knowing my connection with club performances—brusquely pooh-poohed the whole notion of cabaret. She considered it a pastime for amateurs with grandiose ambitions.

Having been deeply moved and/or thoroughly delighted countless times by accomplished artists in cabaret clubs (and having seen plenty of dodgy “legit” plays and musicals as well), I made a vague objection or two, then held my tongue and focused on my Brussels sprouts.

That performer’s attitude is far from the one held by singer/actor T.D. Lang (aka Tammy Faye Starlite), who. in a recent New York Times article on the current state of cabaret, declared: “I don’t separate cabaret from theater, really.”

Me neither.

Evidence of crossover between cabaret and theatre pops up in all sorts of places. Charles Busch’s earliest plays (nonmusicals) were performed in The Limbo Lounge—a dive bar in the East Village—and were often more successful there than when they subsequently moved to “legit” theatre spaces. Joe Iconis has tried out songs in cabaret shows at the Laurie Beechman Theatre before featuring them on theatrical stages. (Note that the Beechman, although primarily a cabaret space, bills itself as a “theatre.”) Meanwhile, 54 Below regularly presents shows from musical-theatre stars and cabaret stalwarts alike—not to mention “reunion” shows featuring casts from past Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals (a recent Grand Hotel reunion event, for instance.)

One telling example of a cabaret-theatre hybrid can be found in Mark Sonnenblick and Sam Bolen’s Midnight at the Never Get. This musical first appeared at Don’t Tell Mama (and was presented with a 2017 Bistro Award). It’s a musical play with a story set in a nightclub, and it was originally performed in a nightclub. As director Max Friedman explained to Alexis Greene in a 2020 article for, when Midnight moved to a conventional theatre, the “immersive experience” component that had worked so well at DTM went missing. Midnight’s example suggests that while some book musicals can work in cabaret spaces, not all musicals necessarily succeed there. (I enjoy going to Pangea very much, but it may not be the best space in town for staging Les Misérables.)

In today’s Bistro Bits column, I’ll have a look at three shows from the past few months that, in one way or another, blurred the lines between theatre and cabaret: first, a new book musical finding its way in a cabaret space; second, a solo nonmusical relocated from a theatrical setting to a club; and, finally, a cabaret show that takes a highly theatrical approach.

Billed as a “jazz musical comedy,” Fifth Avenue, presented earlier this year at Don’t Tell Mama, was not a perfect piece of musical theatre by any means, but it was amiable and full of possibilities. One major plus: a quite plausible, attention-holding plot premise from librettist Susan Crawford—one that that might well have been crafted back in the 1920s, when the story is set.

Cast of Fifth Avenue: (l to r: Kevin Arnold, Adriana Vicinanzo, Beau Allen, Christopher Sutton,
Joseph Peterson, Davinia, James Lynch 
(Photo: Dan Lane Williams /DLR Photography)

In the opening scenes, we find ourselves in a New York City in the throes of Prohibition. A hapless entrepreneur named Maxwell and his sidekick, Willy, have magically weathered a series of business fiascos over the years, and Maxwell has somehow managed to hide his not-so-lucrative, less-than-respectable past from his grown daughter, Rachel. He and Willy are about to embark on yet another venture: the opening of a nightclub in midtown Manhattan called The Crescent Moon. They wind up financing this project with help from an obviously shady lender named Tommy Grace. Maxwell is determined that—this time out—his business will be legit: no bootleg liquor on the premises!

But with Grace in the picture, can disgrace be far behind?

Fifth Avenue is a larger-scale musical than, say, Midnight at the Never Get. While there was no big ensemble in the Don’t Tell Mama production, there was a cast of seven principals. Things got cramped at times, and occasionally director-choreographer Andrea Andresakis resorted to having the cast lined up horizontally (and uninterestingly) across the small stage. The choreography was—necessarily—limited and constrained. And some of the front-row seats in the showroom were reserved for actors when not onstage, reducing accommodations for paying customers.

The production truly benefited from the presence of Christopher Sutton as Maxwell. He’s clearly a musical-theatre pro with the right face and demeanor to play the slightly seedy but charismatic central character. And, as they said back in 1920s, he can “put over a song.”

The rest of the cast was a mixed bag. Adriana Vicinanzo as Rachel provided solid vocals and the right temperament for smart-yet-naïve Rachel. The surname-free Davinia played Gloria, an old flame of Maxwell’s. She delivered a couple of numbers effectively, including the uptempo “Strike It Up”, arguably the best song in the score (which has lyrics by Crawford and Daniel Seidman, music by Seidman). This number was energetic, with a believably 1920s sound). “Grand Illusions,” sung by Maxwell and Willy, was also notable. It reminded me, somehow, of accompaniment for a melodramatic silent movie from the era.

Other of the performers and musical numbers were spirited but not quite there yet.

I went into Fifth Avenue knowing that it was something of a work in progress. I was right. It needs more work, but perhaps the creative team made some good discoveries during this trial run. I hope so.

But, next go-round, an actual theatrical venue might be a good move. The 1920s was a decade overflowing with dance. Audiences need to see Charleston and Black Bottom moves in a space that can comfortably display them. (Viewed February 12.)

A fairly long one-act monodrama, Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee Williams, explored the earliest years in playwright Williams’ career: 1939-1945. Written and performed by Jacob Storms, it worked quite well on the stage of the Laurie Beechman Theatre, which has sufficient technical capabilities to handle the show’s numerous light and sound cues. (The show was originally directed by Alan Cumming and was previously seen at Manhattan’s AMT Theater and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.)

Jacob Storms (Photo: Ellen McDermott)

Smartly, the set was simple: a table with a typewriter, plus two chairs—easily accommodating the solo show’s dramatic action. The play makes big jumps ahead in time, and also shifts from place to place. So, the uncomplicated set thereby became a representation of not one but several of Williams’ writing enclaves during this part of his career.

At the outset, Tennessee is lonely and restless, but he also finds a way to bask in the solitude, to stew in his own creative juices—his wit never flagging. We, the audience, are conveniently there, to listen as he self-dramatizes his struggle to make a name for himself.

Early on, we find him in New York City, where he hopes to become “the Gentile Clifford Odets.”  We later accompany him to Provincetown, MA, where he embarks on a feverish but ill-fated romance with dancer Kip Kiernan, who would become a lifelong muse.

Storms’ Tennessee confides in us about his ongoing battles with his impossible mother back in St. Louis, and he relates an episode in which his sister, Rose, had tattled on him after glimpsing some of his Bacchanalian revels. He rebuked Rose cruelly for this, later suffering intense guilt about his harshness. This is one of the play’s most emotionally searing sequences.

One thing that stands out in Storms’ script is Williams’ vehement opposition to Nazism (a view that figures to some degree in his play The Night of the Iguana). This element seems be included here at least in part because of its relevance to today’s shocking rise in pro-autocratic sentiment.

When Tennessee rails angrily against Nazis—or rails against anything he can’t abide, for that matter—Storms (who wore a headset mic) would drop his usual depiction of Williams as a quiet, sensitive, introspective soul and become something of a different character altogether. Yes, even mice can roar when provoked, but I found these moments a bit jarring. (Physically, Storms is perhaps rather too athletic and robust-looking to make a fully convincing Tennessee to begin with. When I think of Tennessee Williams, “gym rat” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Still, I managed to ignore the impressive biceps and suspend my disbelief.)

As a playwright, Storms has captured the amused, wittily self-deprecatory humor one finds not only in Williams’ works but also in filmed interviews with him later in his career. But Storms’ decision to show repeatedly how real-life events inspired incidents in Williams’ plays grew a bit stale. An iguana spotted on a beach, those fragile glass figures collected by sister Rose, real-world prototypes for Big Daddy and Maggie the Cat—all of these were trotted out over the course of the play. I felt at times as though I were filling in squares on a bingo card.

The darkness in the Beechman showroom during the performance may not have been as intensely dark as that of a regular theatre, and at points I was distracted by wait staff trying to communicate with people at nearby tables about their drink and food orders. That noted, I don’t think my viewing experience of Tennessee Rising in a club was markedly different from what it would have been in a regular theatrical setting. My few nit-pickings aside, this was a smart and entertaining production. (Viewed February 2.)

Kahn Artist: Madeline and Me at Don’t Tell Mama—co-written (with Rod Ferguson), performed by the extremely talented Eden Casteel, and focused in large part on the late actor/singer Madeline Kahn—was no run-of-the-mill tribute show. It was a wild ride—move over Mister Toad!

Eden Casteel (Photo: Jo Brisbane)

It was also heavily scripted, with every moment polished and precise. Extremely theatrical. (Faith Prince directed.)

I worried a bit about this at first. Would the whole thing be so calculated and stylized that it would come off as “rote” and by-the-number? Would the theatricality interfere with Casteel’s rapport with her audience?

At the top of the performance, we didn’t get much if anything about Madeline Kahn herself. Instead, Casteel greeted the audience with Randy Newman’s “I Want Everyone to Like Me,” a frank (though comedic) confession of a performer’s accelerating neediness.

Going autobiographical, Casteel recalled growing up and becoming an operatic-style singer in spite of the fact that she most wanted to be a performer in musical comedy. She regretted that her mother wasn’t a pushy stage mom “like Mama Rose.” Fed up with navigating the upper octaves in classical arias, she lamented the fact that she couldn’t reach the deep-cellar notes in the bridge from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory.”

Then, she recalled noticing Kahn on a television commercial for Michelob Light beer. The tag line for the spot was “You can have it all.” This motto provided a thrilling aspirational target for young Eden. She began studying Kahn’s career and soon identified deeply with her. She was thrilled by the way Kahn had used a classically trained voice in comedic ways to great acclaim. Unfortunately, she discovered along the way that she and her new role model also shared some personal demons. Like Kahn, Casteel harbored insecurities and experienced big disappointments in the romance department.

Casteel has a strong and flexible singing voice, and the show included some exciting renditions of songs from the Kahn career, including the Kurt Weill parody “Das Chicago” (Michael Cohen, Tony Geiss), which young Madeline had performed at Upstairs at the Downstairs, and Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green’s exhilarating “Never” from Broadway’s On the Twentieth Century. (Musical arrangements for the show were supplied by Jim Rice and Bobby Peaco.)

My initial fear—that Casteel would be too “stagey”—quickly dissipated. Although there was little if anything “off the cuff” about her performance, she remained a compelling and authentic presence throughout. Talk about taking chances, braving risks, and not being afraid to look foolish! She was like a Loony Tunes cartoon throughout much of the show: No gesture or grimace too big. No voice too weird.

Yet I found the show to be quite moving and, definitely, intelligent. I highly recommend seeing it if/when it next comes our way. 

Although Kahn Artist was billed as cabaret, it was as much a theatrical experience as Fifth Avenue and Tennessee Rising—highly watchable, listenable, thoughtful, and entertaining.

I hope against hope that that cabaret-hating Tony nominee might see it someday. (Viewed February 21.)



About the Author

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in and, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.