“You’re going to a burlesque show?” my friends asked with mischievous shock when I told them about my planned getaway to Indianapolis.
The question came up so many times that I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
“No, I’m going to a cabaret. It’s like musical theater,” I responded, but each time a little less sure of myself. I had never been to a cabaret before.
As it turned out, both my friends and I were correct, although everyone kept their clothes on at the show I attended. Burlesque is a type of cabaret, but like a good wine, there are so many flavors and styles and blends of cabaret that it’s difficult to explain until you’ve experienced it.
And, as it turns out, Indianapolis offers what is considered a true cabaret experience. While several Midwestern cities offer an occasional cabaret, including the Dakota in Minneapolis and Davenport’s in Chicago, Indianapolis is the only city to have a dedicated cabaret venue — dubbed the Cabaret — plus regular shows and classes in cabaret performance.
“Indianapolis has a very savvy theater crowd and that was a pleasant surprise the first time I performed here,” said Stephanie J. Block, the two-time-Tony-nominated Broadway actress who is currently starring as Cher in “The Cher Show” at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York. Her résumé includes Elphaba in the national tour of “Wicked,” Trina in “Falsettos” and the role of Liza Minnelli in “The Boy From Oz.”
“The audience here is very engaged, very American Songbook, and it’s just a delightful opportunity for me,” said Block, who has performed three times in cabaret in Indianapolis.
A necessity in describing cabaret is the word “intimate,” both in the setting and in the relationship between the audience and the performers. The stage in a cabaret club is naturally small and must extend out into the audience, but is elevated just a few feet. It’s not uncommon for the artist to walk out among the tables and guests during the show. Sometimes cabaret includes dinner; sometimes just drinks.
The venue must also be intimate in the number and the style of seating. The Cabaret in Indianapolis seats 186, mostly at cocktail tables seating four. No seat is more than 35 feet from the stage.
The difficulty in defining cabaret is the show itself.
“It’s like having live theater in your living room,” said Brent Marty, director of music and education at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre in Indianapolis. He has performed and taught cabaret.
“Good cabaret is, at its essence, good storytelling,” Marty said. “Because of the intimacy in the setting and the storytelling, you learn something about yourself as you learn about the performer.”
Friends who can sing
With that definition, cabaret can take on many forms. Burlesque lends itself to the edgy nature of cabaret, but not all burlesque is cabaret. Jazz also lends itself to cabaret, but not all jazz shows can be defined as such. Comedy is often a component of cabaret, but not a necessity. Karaoke is definitely not cabaret.
American-style cabaret often celebrates the Great American Songbook, a collection of songs written for and made popular by musical theater on Broadway and in Hollywood. Songs by George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter are typical. If you can hum the tune of “Making Whoopee,” “Putting on the Ritz” or “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” you know the Great American Songbook.
“The most difficult part for the performer is to find the right music and make it their own, make it personal,” Marty said. “An artist can’t just perform a collection of their favorite songs in a small theater and call it cabaret.”
In the Stephanie J. Block show that I saw at the Cabaret, she openly shared the wounds of making it in show business through the songs she chose, often inserting a story or personal comment in the midst of the song. A native of Southern California, Block told of her Disneyland audition at age 15. While her sister was chosen to be a princess, Stephanie earned the roll of Fifer, one of the Three Little Pigs.
Who among us cannot relate to such a professional moment?
Block gushed about meeting her future husband, actor Sebastian Arcelus, about kissing Hugh Jackman professionally, and the challenges of parenthood, all while invoking songs that helped communicate her angst and elation, her insecurities and tenacity.
After 90 minutes of Block opening up to us, I felt like I had a new friend, one who could sing really, really well.
“Not everyone knows how to connect with the audience in a cabaret setting,” said Shannon Forsell, artistic director and CEO of the Cabaret. “They are too often so trained in becoming a character that it becomes difficult to perform as themselves.”
Along with Marty from the Booth Tarkington Theatre, Forsell helped design the curriculum of two theater courses at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., that incorporate cabaret.
“We try to teach students not to perform in cabaret,” said Forsell. “You have to feel comfortable being yourself and baring your soul, and that doesn’t come naturally to most of us.”
Professional cabaret in Indianapolis has come and gone in various forms, but in 2019, the Cabaret is celebrating 10 years as a part of the Midwest arts scene. Having rented space in other venues most of this time, the Cabaret moved into its dedicated venue in April 2018.
“In the early years, we had to beg people from New York or San Francisco to come to Indianapolis, but in the last year or so, I’ve actually had to turn people down,” Forsell said.
On occasion, artists performing in Indianapolis will also perform cabaret at a theater in Columbus, Ind., a community about 90 minutes south of the city. Just north of downtown Indy, in Carmel, a planned boutique hotel will include a cabaret venue operated by Michael Feinstein, a renowned entertainer who owns cabarets in New York and San Francisco.
Feinstein is also artistic director at the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel and the founder of the Great American Songbook Foundation. The foundation’s Songbook Exhibition Gallery is located on the ground floor of the Palladium concert hall in Carmel.
When the Carmel hotel is completed, hopefully by 2021, it will be possible to spend an especially long weekend in central Indiana immersed in the unique musical experience that is cabaret, and leave with new friends who can sing really, really well.
For the winter/spring show schedules at the Cabaret, visit thecabaret.org. For additional information on Indianapolis and Carmel, go to visitindy.org or visithamiltoncounty.com, respectively.
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a travel writer based in Kansas City.