by Richard Dodds
Like Sarah Palin, cabaret presenter Marilyn Levinson had to go rogue. That wasn't her plan when, as a lawyer in the tech world sidelined by a bad back, she decided to reboot her life by giving the gift of cabaret. Launching its 10th season with Broadway and TV star Megan Hilty (Wicked, Smash) on Sept. 21 in the Fairmont's Venetian Room, Levinson's Bay Area Cabaret series began humbly at a restaurant in Marin, and then quickly found itself at Davies Symphony Hall.
Photo: Courtesy NBC
When Levinson approached Barbara Cook's manager in 2004 about bringing the Broadway and concert legend back to the Bay Area, she got a "yes" within five minutes. "But I didn't realize they had Davies in mind," Levinson said.
She fronted the money for the booking, and approached a "critical" member of the local news media for coverage of the Cook performance. "Honey, I was over her years ago," she recalls hearing from a journalist she declined to further identify. "You do feel desperate when that is the only response on this risk you are taking to try to do something nice," said Levinson, who does not draw a salary from the not-for-profit BAC. "I stood to lose $60,000, and then you realize, oh my God, we've got to go rogue here." One of her rogue efforts, plastering neighborhoods with posters, earned her a scolding letter from a citizens' group.
Levinson doesn't need to hit the streets with staple gun in hand anymore, as the Bay Area Cabaret series has continued to gain traction over the years. Moving the series to the Venetian Room, a storied, starry supper club that closed in 1989, has brought a new allure. "I had been circling the room like a vulture for a few years," she said. "I do believe that this venue gives expression to our vision for cabaret, because cabaret is the sum of its parts and one of the larger parts being the venue itself."
The new season (a full schedule appears below) offers seven acts, each here for one night only, that range from Broadway to jazz, and from celebrated to those on the verge. "We use a subscription model, so audiences will take a leap of faith on artists they don't necessarily know," Levinson said. BAC currently has 140 subscribers, not quite half of the room's capacity. "It gives me a little bit of a cushion, because this really is an expensive endeavor."
At several points, Levinson emphasized that BAC offers "curated" seasons, based on the American Songbook series at Lincoln Center, which makes it "somewhat textured and part of a musical journey that we've been on with our audiences for 10 years."
With one exception, a performer who wanted the room configured for less intimacy, Levinson said that "most have really thrived on the audience involvement and its energy. When I was starting this, I went to the West Coast Cabaret Convention, and it was sad. It was not well-attended, and I said I'm going to make a promise to myself and to the artists, that every artist is going to have a virtually sold-out house. It's actually happened."
Seeking out the right performers, some of whom have never played the Bay Area, is a task she shares with Michael Williams of the late, lamented Medium Rare Music in the Castro. Williams is also a big asset, Levinson said, in marketing to the LGBT community that can make up as much as 50% of audiences. "I sometimes feel like a gay man trapped in a woman's body," she said with a laugh.
Photo: Peter Hurley
Levinson has thought about this popularity, especially among gay men. "One of the things that draws me to cabaret is the autobiographical openness of it," she said. "I think an experience that most members of that community share is the process of coming out and telling their story. There's something about the vulnerability and frankness of it that touches me deeply."
In addition to Hilty's opening show, the new Bay Area Cabaret season includes Norm Lewis, recently on Broadway as Porgy in Porgy and Bess (Oct. 20); pianist Jim Brickman with Broadway's David Burnham (Nov. 10); celebrated cabaret duo John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey (Jan. 19); Broadway legend Chita Rivera (Feb. 23); jazz vocalist Stacey Kent (March 15); Motown: The Musical star Morgan James (April 6); and Broadway and cabaret veteran Karen Mason (May 18). For more information, go to bayareacabaret.org.