Cabaret act: Who brought the stars back to the Venetian Room?
Published April 26, 2012, Examiner.com
What makes someone want to become an impresario?
We all understand the yearning to be a star, or even a performer at the back of the stage—a backup singer, a dancer in the chorus. The TV series Smash is a highly entertaining reminder of how hard such people work, against all odds, to make it, or just to perform from time to time.
So we can comprehend the drive that gets performers onstage at venues like…oh, let's just say the Venetian Room, in the Fairmont Hotel. Someone like Laura Benanti, for instance—a Tony-winning actress (for her Louise/Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy)—who happens to be performing there, for the Bay Area Cabaret series, on May 12. She's the latest of the performers BAC has booked since 2007, among them Broadway stars Sutton Foster and Chita Rivera; jazz vocalist Jane Monheit and soprano Patricia Racette; jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli and his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey; and singer/songwriter Melissa Manchester.
But what about the person who organized that series and signs the performers?
That would be Marilyn Levinson, an intellectual property lawyer until her father's sudden death persuaded her to pursue her true passion. Which was? "I wanted to bring nationally renowned vocalists to San Francisco and present them in intimate, elegant venues," says Levinson, who lives in Larkspur and has offices in Marin and San Francisco. She started big: One of the first concerts she produced brought famed Broadway singer Barbara Cook to Davies Symphony Hall.
Davies is elegant but hardly intimate. What Levinson really wanted was to produce shows in the setting that piqued her imagination as a child, the place that stayed in her dreams. For other kids, that might have been a lake, a park, a secret groves of trees; OK, maybe a mall. For Levinson, it was the Venetian Room.
Levinson’s mother had worked with the San Francisco Civic Light Opera, the predecessor to today’s Best of Broadway, bringing in the "opening-night crowd" and organizing financial guarantors for the shows. ("So we had in our home Alfred Drake, John Raitt, Ricardo Montalban...") On the heavy-opera side, her uncle, James Schwabacher, founded the Schwabacher Debut Recitals, which showcase up-and-coming classical singers in, yes, intimate settings. He also was president for many years of the Merola Opera Program, a summer training program for young opera singers.
With all that show biz surrounding her, Levinson spent a lot of time at the Fairmont's legendary supper club. "I've been like a Phantom of the Opera at the Venetian Room my whole life," she says. "I'd haunted that room for years."
Since 1947, the Venetian Room had been the swanky setting for stars from Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole to Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett; but it closed in 1989. "San Francisco has so much history encapsulated in hotel ballrooms," says Levinson. "To me, it felt like a tragedy that the room was not in use."
Now it is. First hired to present "supper-club evenings" for the hotel's centennial, in 2007, Levinson has been bringing singing stars to the Venetian Room for Bay Area Cabaret since 2010, when Marvin Hamlisch performed on opening night. BAC 2.0 is a selection of programs for a younger audience, presenting performers like Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp of Rent. Skewing even younger is BAC's Bay Area Teen Idol competition, which began last year. (The judges included Eden Espinosa, from the original cast of Wicked, and American Idol’s musical director, Michael Orland.)
With 10 finalists, the second annual Bay Area Teen Idol competition (before judges such as Mary Wilson of the Supremes) takes place May 6. Wrapping up the BAC season the following week is Laura Benanti, who has also appeared in Nine (opposite Antonio Banderas), Into the Woods, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Opening for Benanti is Robert Conte Thornton, last year's Bay Area Teen Idol winner.
May 6, Bay Area Teen Idol competition, 3 p.m.; May 12, Laura Benanti, 8 p.m., Venetian Room, Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., San Francisco, bayareacabaret.org
Pure pop pleasure with the Puppini Sisters
By Chad Jones, Published April, 2016
To read the review, please click here.
Bay Area News Group
Published Thursday, October 14, 2010
San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate.com
Published Thursday-Sunday, October 14-17, 2010
NIGHTLIFE - SF Examiner
by Robert Sokol
Clubs Urge Locals to Come Hear the Music Play -
New York Times
by Chloe Veltman
An otherwise inconspicuous air duct at the back of the Fairmont Hotel's ornate Venetian Room harbors an important piece of local cultural history. There, the names of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Tina Turner and other great vocal artists who performed in the club were etched — reportedly by a hotel technician — onto the surface of the ventilation conduit as a reminder of the Venetian Room's glory days. It was there, in 1962, that Tony Bennett first performed "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
On Sunday, the 350-seat supper club is scheduled to reopen as a cabaret after mainly being used as a site for weddings since it closed in 1989. The producer, Bay Area Cabaret, hopes to rekindle the club’s old magic.
"There are people like me that haunted the Venetian Room like ghosts and longed for those days of elegance to return," said Marilyn Levinson, the founder and executive producer of Bay Area Cabaret. "While we cannot bring the cigarette girls, nightly performances and dancing back, we can recreate the atmosphere."
The return of the Venetian Room as a space for small-scale, "martini-in-hand" live performances by big-name artists — the Sunday gala features Marvin Hamlisch and Maria Friedman, the Olivier Award-winning British performer — represents the latest development in the Bay Area's quiet yet burgeoning cabaret scene.
Venetian Room Reopens with Fall Gala
The Potrero View
by Jim Van Buskirk
Published in September 2010
The Venetian Room, in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, reigned supreme as America's premier supper club from 1947 to 1989. It was there that Tony Bennett introduced his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," and show business legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Marlene Dietrich, Joel Grey, Bobby Short, Bernadette Peters, James Brown, Carol Channing, Nat 'King' Cole, Judy Collins, emerging comedian Ellen DeGeneres, and other performers held forth for more than four decades. Everyone — audiences and performers alike — agreed that the Venetian Room was the place for an elegant evening of entertainment... read more > >
by Leah Garchik
The doors to the Venetian Room, which have been shut for 21 years, open again Oct. 17 when Bay Area Cabaret begins its season there with a performance by Marvin Hamlisch. The whole Bay Area Cabaret season - through the following May - will be in the room, which seats 350 people, and where cocktails will be served. Ticket holders will be offered a three-course, $40 dinner in the Laurel Room, free parking and a reduced room rate. Bay Area Cabaret founder Marilyn Levinson is "thrilled and honored to be reopening this historic room," and notes that it was in the Venetian Room that Tony Bennett introduced "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
Bay Area Cabaret Adds Performance of Pizzarelli
and Molaskey Concert for 3/13
by BWW News Desk
After selling out the original 5pm performance two months prior to the engagement, Bay Area Cabaret has added a second performance of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey's acclaimed concert "Heart of a Saturday Night," 7:30pm Sunday March 13, 2011 at the Venetian Room of the Fairmont San Francisco (950 Mason Street). The winners of New York's coveted Nightlife Award, jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli and his wife, Broadway star Jessica Molaskey blend musical genres seamlessly and intelligently in their newest smash hit Café Carlyle show "Heart of a Saturday Night." The New York Times' Stephen Holden raves, "In wit and musical savvy, nothing matches these smart conceptual shows, in which Mr. Pizzarelli's jazz guitar and crooning and Ms. Molaskey's theatrical jazz singing fuse into something that's greater than the sum of its parts." Tickets ($45) are available at www.bayareacabaret.org or by phone at City Box Office (415) 392-4400.
Peppered with hilarious anecdotes from Pizzarelli's rich musical background and swathed in Molaskey's captivating grace and theatricality, "Heart of a Saturday Night" is an evening of delights for music and theatre lovers of all walks. Heralded as "a musical match made in heaven" by The New York Times, the show is a musical dialogue, poignantly pairing favorite songs with unexpected common themes-Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings" with hit song "Seasons of Love" from Rent or Gershwins' "Oh! Lady Be Good" with the tender "Something Good" by Richard Rodgers, to name a few. An eclectic smorgasbord, "Heart of a Saturday Night" also includes the music of Duke Ellington, Tom Waits, Stephen Sondheim, Joni Mitchell, Count Basie, Cole Porter, and DeSylva, Brown & Henderson, as well as influences from jazz, Brazilian samba, and more, in an evening enhanced by the effervescent banter and soulful stage presence of this husband and wife team.
Married to music
by Robert Sokol, The Examiner
She's flying in from Portland rehearsals with Dave Frischberg and he's coming off a recording session, but when longtime couple Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli return home from their two concerts at the Fairmont's Venetian Room this weekend, they will enjoy a rare treat.
"We'll actually sit next to each other on the flight home from San Francisco," says Pizzarelli, adding, "and without a child between us!"
Molaskey already had credits in shows like "Les Misérables" and "The Who’s Tommy" and Pizzarelli was a well-established guitarist and recording artist when they met on Broadway in the 1990s.
Both were in the cast of the Johnny Mercer tribute show "Dream" with the late Margaret Whiting, who knew right away something had sparked. "She said, 'Jessica … every time you walk by that man your face gets all red!' "
Music abounds in the Pizzarelli family. John's father Bucky is a noted jazz guitarist and brother Martin is a bassist. Between his own releases and collaborations with both his wife and his father, Pizzarelli has been a principal artist on 40 albums in the past 30 years. He's credited as a contributor to more than 100 more.
"If John has a day off in New York City he goes and plays ... on someone's record," Molaskey jokes.
Molaskey, who toured her first Broadway show here at the Curran Theatre, is particularly excited to be playing the Venetian Room. "I saw Oscar Peterson there back in the '80s," she says. "It was the first time I ever went to San Francisco."
The lineup of their show here is still being decided. "Which one are we doing, John?" she asks politely. "Well, we can do whatever you feel like doing, Jess," he replies obligingly. It's not a lack of planning on their part, but an overabundance of material. "We have a bit of an embarrassment of riches these days because we haven't played San Francisco in quite a while," says Molaskey.
Like fine wine with good food, a recent trend for them has been pairings of songs that Molaskey says answer each other. "I'll play 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps" says Pizzarelli. "Then I'll sing 'Killing Me Softly,' which is from the perspective of someone watching someone playing the guitar," Molaskey finishes.
"We never script a show," says Molaskey. "We both come from such different places in terms of approaching the music and we put it through our individual filters and hope that it comes out in a way that people like." Adds Pizzarelli, "It's really 52nd Street meets 42nd Street."
Bay Area Cabaret offers finest voices
Christine Andreas & David Burnham appear in 'Here's to the Ladies'
by Jason Victor Serinus
Stage stars Christine Andreas and David Burnham.
"Who is the woman with the fabulous voice?" queried the husband from the kitchen. It was two-time Tony nominee Christine Andreas. Renowned for her performance in Light in the Piazza, and her recreation of the role of Eliza Doolittle in the 20th anniversary production of My Fair Lady on Broadway, Andreas will fill the Empire Ballroom of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel this Sunday when she presents Here's to the Ladies. Singing selections from her eponymous CD, Andreas pays tribute to five great women of the theater (Andrews, Merman, Martin, Morgan, and either Streisand or Lawrence).
As an extra gift to the ladies and girls amongst us, Andreas will be joined by her ridiculously handsome, uniquely voiced Piazza co-star, David Burnham. The event, which opens Bay Area Cabaret's fifth season, is so in demand that a second, 4 p.m. show has been added to accommodate the overflow crowd.
Marilyn Levinson founded Bay Area Cabaret to fill a gap in the cultural landscape. "I'm trying to do something a bit different in terms of artist selection," she explained by phone. "By building each season around a theme,
in this case Broadway and All that Jazz, and booking a historic, elegant San Francisco ballroom rather than a nightclub, I'm hoping to broaden the traditional audience beyond the regulars. I want to bring in younger people who think Cabaret was just a movie."
When it comes to programming, Levinson is hardly stabbing in the dark. Her knowledge of voices stems from her uncle, vocal champion James Schwabacher, and her mother, Marie Louise Rosenberg, who served as right-hand person for the head of the Los Angeles and San Francisco Civic Light Operas. Before Levinson became an attorney specializing in intellectual property, she worked for New York theater producers such as Joseph Papp, and served as Yul Brynner's road manager.
One of the many great things about Bay Area Cabaret is that there are no drink minimums. What you pay upfront is all you have to pay (especially if you take BART rather than drive). Young people who attend the 4 p.m. show on Nov. 16 will discover a Teen Lounge area made possible by the all-volunteer staff of the nonprofit organization.
Levinson's savvy and contacts are reflected in her equally stupendous choice for the December 2 performance. No less than the great Barbara Cook, celebrated for her leading roles in the Broadway premieres of Candide and The Music Man, will fill Herbst Theater with her iconic sound. Now 81 and still going strong, the greatly in-demand Cook will join SF Chronicle critic Steven Winn to intersperse selections by Sondheim, Rodgers, and Berlin with conversation. The last time I had a chance to hear Cook, it was in New York City, where the ticket prices were much higher, and the 500-drink minimum equally forbidding. Don't miss this opportunity.
The rest of Bay Area Cabaret's season gravitates between the Commandants Room and Crystal Ballroom of the Marines Memorial Club. Christine Ebersole, who will open with Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett on Broadway this spring in a revival of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, performs on Jan. 18. Expect the two-time Tony winner and ex-Saturday Night Live cast member's show, accompanied by Billy Stritch of Liza fame, to sell out.
The March 8 performance by six-time Grammy nominee Nnenna Freelon and her jazz trio marks the first time Bay Area Cabaret has dabbled in jazz. Freelon will mix American jazz standards with classics by Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and the Gershwins. You can hear her NPR interview at www.bayareacabaret.com.
Jumping to May 17, Tony-nominated singing actress Ann Hampton Callaway celebrates the forthcoming release of her latest CD of love songs with a performance that is likely to include a song she wrote for Barbra Streisand. Catch her great video-clip improvising on the Rosie O'Donnell Show; it gives a hint of how Callaway will compose a song at show's end with input from the audience. According to Levinson, who applauds Callaway's anthem on global warming that she performed on every freedom-lover's favorite truth-telling
network, Fox, Callaway has "a tremendous heart and is a terrific vocalist with an amazing range." To avoid encountering another sell-out, get tickets now at either bayareacabaret.org or by calling (415) 392-4400.
Christine Ebersole - jazz to haunting reverie
Steven Winn, Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic
If Broadway star Christine Ebersole did nothing else but stand onstage and smile, she might send an audience home happy. She did a lot more than that in a rich Sunday afternoon performance at the Commandants Room of the Marines Memorial Club. But that easy, radiant smile was irresistibly inviting, like a wide open window to all she has to offer. Innocence and impishness, irony and wisdom, character and flashes of sorrow - it was all there to be seen and heard in 70 expertly fashioned minutes of music.
Unlike some nightclub performers, who seem to find appearing before an audience an unsavory duty on the way to singing, Ebersole clearly feels comfortable with a crowd. Entering on a wave of applause at the first of two Sunday shows presented by Bay Area Cabaret, she drank in the welcome gratefully, hands crossed on her chest. Then, with her musical partner Billy Stritch at the piano and Daniel Fabricant on bass, Ebersole spun out a deft and driving medley of "Devil May Care" and "Let's Face the Music." A bright tone, pure diction, supple rhythms and a facility for informing a short phrase or single note with sly shadings were all firmly in place. She had the audience smiling right back at her right away.
Many came primed for adoration. A two-time Tony award winner (for "Grey Gardens" and "42nd Street"), the platinum-haired Ebersole, at 55, has assumed the rank of Broadway diva. Winningly, she's only too ready to knock the pedestal out from under herself.
Of her return to San Francisco, she said brightly, "It's exciting to come back here and work on my gay icon status." Her last name, she explained with deadpan aplomb, means "the soul of a wild boar." Her hometown of Winnetka, Ill., she added, is an Indian word for "affluent gentile." When she mentioned that Donald Rumsfeld had attended her high school, drawing the requisite boos, she cautioned the crowd, "Keep it neutral. It's cabaret. And don't forget: We're in the Marines Memorial."
Ebersole, a "Saturday Night Live" alum, could have gone on in that vein for a while. A gifted comic performer, she makes practiced patter sound spontaneous. She turned a talkative fan in the front row to her advantage, asking if he wanted to come back and emcee the second show. Her humor kept darting off in some new direction.
More important, there was nothing pat or predictable about the way she and Stritch went at her song list. Early on, "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" got a stately, expansive reading that transformed that clip-clopping tune from "Oklahoma!" into a kind of communal reverie. Another Rodgers and Hammerstein standard, "My Favorite Things," sailed by in a lean, fleet performance that stripped away sentimentality and emphasized a pert waltz pulse.
"Lullaby of Broadway," from "42nd Street," took on the haunted nostalgia of something from Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" in Stritch's arrangement and Ebersole's spacious, meditative performance. "Sunday in New York" and "Hit That Jive, Jack" provided a double dose of brassy, stylish jazz.
In "They Say It's Wonderful," from "Annie Get Your Gun," Ebersole drew an emotional arc from wistfulness to ardor and on to a kind of sighing resignation. None of it felt forced or imposed but instead came across as a new way of seeing into a song that listeners already have filed and tucked away. Another Irving Berlin number, "Slumming on Park Avenue," showed off Ebersole's comic dexterity, as she took on the plummy tones of an Upper East Side matron.
Ebsersole's instinct for the unexpected led her off track in a few spots. Apparently determined not to milk several ballads too hard, she left "What'll I Do?" and "Not While I'm Around" a shade under-interpreted. Some of her duet passages with Stritch seemed out of sync, with his burly voice driving her out of her own comfort zone.
But when Ebersole shines, she can light up the little spaces in a song that others might leave unexplored. In the simple searching questions of "Will You?," from "Grey Gardens," she found a dark, shimmering depth. Her timbre grew denser and murkier. Her eyes fluttered shut. The lilacs and wild geese of the lyrics slid away. "I will be ever true," she sang, and made the audience believe it absolutely. Then, on an aching last phrase, Ebersole left the last question hanging: "Will you?"
Ann Hampton Callaway Wows the Audience at
Bay Area Cabaret
Singer, composer, actress and pianist Ann Hampton Callaway wowed the audience on Sunday, May 14th at the opening of the 2006 Bay Area Cabaret show at the Marines Memorial Crystal Ballroom in San Francisco. For over 100 minutes, Ms. Callaway regaled the audience with an interesting potpourri of songs ranging from jazz classics to great standards. This wonderful artist has a voice that falls somewhere between jazz and Broadway. Ms. Callaway is audience friendly and she projects that special talent for deprecation. Not only is she a vibrant singer but a comedienne as well. Her remarks about certain parts of her life come out like little gems.
This was the first time I had seen this amazing talent who has won an unprecedented 14 MAC awards and has appeared around the world at leading jazz and classical venues. She was also nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in Swing. I was knocked out by her performance.
Ms. Callaway came strolling out onto the small stage and, sitting at the piano, she went into a upbeat arrangement of "Swing Away the Blues" with scat singing like the divine Ella Fitzgerald (this song will be on her album Blues in the Night, to be released in August). Ann grew up in Chicago loving the records of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. She offered great imitations of Ms. Holiday on "God Bless the Child" and Ms. Vaughn on "Misty" before segueing her comical composition, "The I'm-Too-White-To-Sing-The-Blues Blues."
Ms. Callaway changed style and sang a poignant version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Toward the end of the song she belted out the number with assured confidence. She talked about her upcoming film role in Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd. She was only to be in the background singing "Come Rain or Come Shine," when De Niro decided to cast her in the film as a singer. She said she had to wear an upswept hair piece for the role; she told us that "the higher the hair, the closer to God" was said on the set. She then went into an emotional arrangement of the Harold Arlen song with a great piano solo.
The artist also introduced the lovely weighty ballad "Spring Can Hang You Up the Most." She sang several of her compositions, including "The Libra Song," "Hip to be Happy" and "Where Does Love Go?" Also included was the song she composed for the television series "The Nanny." She said the show is now on repeats on the Lifetime Network, which is "for women and gay men."
Ms. Callaway gave a personal tribute to her idol, the first lady of song Ella Fitzgerald, by singing and scatting "Mr. Paganini" and a soul full rendition of the Rodgers and Hart classic "Blue Moon." The singer talked about writing a love song for Barbra Streisand to sing at her wedding to James Brolin. It took five weeks to write the lyrics to the song, titled "I've Dreamed of You," which is stunning. Barbra was so impressed with the song that she told Ann she would use it on her fourth farewell tour. The audience then joined her in a swinging '30s arrangement of "The Glory of Love."
As her signature, Ms. Callaway told the audience she is a songwriter and she wanted them to yell out words or phrases for a Mother Day's song that she would compose immediately. The audience yelled out phrases like "Why didn't you call," "If I ain't happy, no one's happy," "where are the boys now," "shopping in New York" and words like "painful" and "natural." On the spot, she composed a blues arrangement of a new song. The artist closed her set with an affecting version of Johnny Mercer's "Blues in the Night" which she sang in the Broadway production of Swing.
Thursday, May 11, 2006
MARILYN LEVINSON is hardly a veteran of the golden age of cabaret, when no self-respecting hotel lounge or upscale club would be without a singer warbling intimately to the assembled throng.
She has treasured memories of living in New York and getting a high-octane cabaret experience from Karen Mason at the Duplex in the Village. All she really wants, though, is to open up cabaret to people who have traded the small and intimate for grazing in the huge entertainment feed lots that dot the Bay, or electronic replacements for a great night out.
"Cabaret strips people down to who they are; there's no hiding from the audience," says Levinson, founder of Bay Area Cabaret, an organization that presents and promotes cabaret performances. She's also producer of Ann Hampton Callaway's show Sunday at the Marines Memorial Club Crystal Ballroom and of Patricia Racette's performance May 20, in the first public performance in the Fairmont Hotel's Venetian Room. "It's very frustrating to me that most people in my generation don't know what cabaret means."
It focuses on the performer -- usually a solo or perhaps a duo -- accompanied by a piano or small combo, and singing to a crowd of maybe 200 to 400. There are no huge speakers, no giant video monitors; they're not needed, because the performer is right there in the room.
"I'm in my 40s, I have two small children, I live in Marin, and I get depressed when I think about what we do on a date night," she says. "We might go to the multiplex, or out to dinner. But what is there to do after dinner? Cabaret is a wonderful entertainment form that doesn't require a tremendous amount of concentration. Since performances usually run around 90 minutes, it doesn't require a great deal of time, and what you get is a cross between a concert and a party."
What you also get is an opportunity to see some of the classic entertainment opulence of the Bay Area -- showrooms that often glitter as much as the acts playing in them.
The Crystal Ballroom, where Callaway will perform Sunday, is a jewel near the top of the Marines Memorial Club building -- a place that not only includes accommodations but a theater, restaurant and bar with a spectacular high-level view of downtown San Francisco and the Bay. The Venetian Room, where Racette performs, is one of the city's legendary nightspots, where, up to 15 or 20 years ago, headliners ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Tina Turner would perform on a regular basis. The room hasn't been open to the public for at least a decade, but its golden splendor is intact, and the May 20 concert could be the start of a new life for the showroom in the 1906 hotel at the top of Nob Hill.
"As a native San Franciscan, I have a lot of memories of the various venues, theaters and ballrooms," says Levinson. "That's why we have no one venue; I like moving around a little. And the Venetian Room, well, that's actually a lifetime dream."
Details: Callaway performs 5 p.m. Sunday in the Crystal Ballroom, 609 Sutter St. Tickets cost $40. Racette plays May 20 in the Venetian Room at 950 Mason St. Tickets, which include coffee and dessert, cost $50. Tickets are available at 415-392-4400 or www.bayareacabaret.org.
Bay Area Cabaret featured in Bay Area Reporter
'Sitting in the dark, being sung to'
Bay Area Cabaret series kicks off season this weekend
When Marilyn Levinson told friends that she was producing cabaret in the Bay Area, they assured her "it should do well, the movie did well." Levinson laughs, but the widespread unfamiliarity with cabaret (the art form, not the Broadway musical) obviously rankles.
Levinson is passionately committed to bringing "high-quality Broadway and cabaret performers to intimate and elegant venues." By day a self-described "Marin soccer mom," Levinson's journey to cabaret producer is illuminating. Always interested in music and theater, having worked with producers Joe Papp and Arthur Cantor in New York, and locally for Marine's Memorial, ACT and with Steve Silver, she was encouraged by her father to study law at Stanford. After practicing law for many years, Levinson began experiencing debilitating back-pain, which threatened to end her career. Trying to determine what to do next, she wrote to Barbara Cook's agent inviting the Broadway legend to perform in San Francisco. "I was thinking, hoping, that she wouldn't respond," Levinson admits, but when she did, it led directly to the formation of Bay Area Cabaret, a nonprofit organization which produced a 2004 season of three Diva Evenings: Barbara Cook at Davies Symphony Hall, singer/songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway at Marines Memorial and opera singer Karen Slack at Giorgio's Restaurant in Marin.
"For the first time in my life, I knew I was going in the direction of my heart," says Levinson. She still sounds amazed at the power of cabaret. During the Cook concert, Levinson, having lost her mother to the devastation of Parkinson's disease, was unexpectedly flooded with fond memories of her mother before the disease. "There is nothing quite so emotionally satisfying as sitting in the dark, being sung to." In this world of ever-increasing technology, Levinson believes, there is something human being lost. "I'm trying to build community around cabaret, to reestablish connection."
As the first of this season's Bay Area Cabaret concerts, Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley return to the Bay Area on Oct. 23, following their stellar performances in the SF Symphony's Candide and Of Thee I Sing/Let them Eat Cake . Mazzie has starred in Kiss Me Kate, Passion and Ragtime, while Danieley has been lauded for his roles in The Full Monty, Floyd Collins and Candide. The husband-and-wife team will be performing their cabaret show Opposite You, which first appeared as part of the Lincoln Center American Songbook Series, and is being released as a CD in November. The concert features duets, solos, and medleys from such songwriters as Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.
When she first heard Karen Mason years ago at the Duplex in New York, Levinson felt like she was in Mason's living room, "experiencing the words, the patter, who she is." A consummate cabaret performer, Mason will debut The Winner Takes it All on Dec. 11. The title of Mason's show comes from an ABBA song, appropriately since she originated the role of Tanya in the Broadway hit Mamma Mia. The show will include material from her brand new CD The Sweetest of Nights, as well as some holiday favorites.
Perhaps the freshest take on cabaret is Darius de Haas performing the Stevie Wonder Songbook. The Obie Award-winning singer, actor and dancer will be making his Bay Area debut on Nov. 20. De Haas performed with Vanessa Williams in the 1994 Kiss of the Spider Woman, and was the special guest on her Everlasting Love tour in 2005. His solid voice, "which he takes all over the place," has been heard on a dozen recordings, including the concert version of Dreamgirls. His 2002 solo album Day Dreams: Variations on Strayhorn has been acclaimed as a "modern masterpiece." De Haas, who, like Billy Strayhorn, is both black and gay, was one of the highlights of this summer's R Family Cruise, conceived by Gregg Kaminsky and Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell to cater to gay families. Levinson anticipates that the de Haas concert will be "the runaway hit of the series, perhaps because the material is fresher, more modern. Darius breathes new life into the art form. Like all this year's performers, he has honesty, authenticity, and blazing talent."
Our season was recently featured on Playbill.com
Mazzie, Danieley, de Haas and Mason Set for
Bay Area Cabaret Season