by Fran Zell
An alliance of vibrant musical talent known as the Chicago Cabaret Professionals gave its first live Musical Monday concert since before Covid-19 this past Monday at the city’s Old Town School of Folk Music. And the excitement was palpable on both sides of the footlights.
“Passing the Torch,” as the evening was called, featured vocal performances by six veteran CCP members and five newcomers to the organization, all richly talented and dedicated to furthering cabaret as a unique and vital form of musical entertainment.
Textbooks explain that “cabaret” derives its unique strength and flavor from the singer’s personal connection to the music, lyrics, and meaning of the song. And, of course, it requires a live audience to ignite the spark that makes it so emotionally resonant and intimate, whether performed in a tiny nightclub or larger venue.
All those elements were in abundance on Monday night in the Old Town School’s 150-seat Szold Hall. One vocalist after the other regaled the enthusiastic audience with jazz, pop, French, and Broadway favorites.
It was all skillfully orchestrated by director Carla Gordon and Mark Burnell as music director. Both are icons on the Chicago and national cabaret scene, Burnell as a “silky smooth” pianist and singer, and Gordon as singer, songwriter, producer, director and “honey-voiced wisecracker.” Burnell was on keyboards alongside agile saxophonist Kent Minor.
The showcase honored young and older generations of cabaret artists, while the torch was metaphorically passed back and forth between CCP veterans and newcomers. It wasn’t long into the program before the line rightfully blurred between who was new and who was not.
Ellen Winters Reynolds’ lustrous soprano opened the showcase with her former student Grace McDonell in “Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again,” originally stylized by Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand back in 1991. The all-cast finale began with 70-ish Carla Gordon teaming up with 20-something baritone Jace McCloy in a playful rendition of “You Make Me Feel So Young,”.
Between these lovely bookends there were many impressive performances. Highlights included, Grace McDonell’s jazzy “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore;” Lou Ella Rose’s mesmerizing “A Million Dreams,” (from The Greatest Showman); LJ Bullen’s powerhouse performance of “People”(from Funny Girl) and her duet with the inimitable David Edelfelt of Irving Berlin’s “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”
Not to overlook the French charm Claudia Hommel brought into the room with “When the World Was Young.” Or Ava Logan’s “Believe in Yourself” from The Wiz. And Jameson Wentworth’s clever fusion of “Close Every Door” (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and “Santa Fe” (Newsies).
The event, which was produced by CCP president Anne Burnell and Marty Balogh, was conceived as a relaunching of CCP’s Musical Mondays. This was a popular monthly series that began in 2008 at the Water Tower Place Drury Lane Theatre, later moving to Victory Gardens Theatre and Skokie Theatre. The pandemic silenced it for more than two years.
Now that CCP is up and running again, it plans to keep the momentum going.
There will be another Musical Monday at the Old Town School on May 9, this one titled, “Pop Goes the Cabaret.” That event falls in the midst of great cabaret activity in Chicago, with the advent May 6 to 16 of Chicago Cabaret Week; a citywide festival with performances by numerous artists at 15 different venues. From May 8 to 16 The Chicago Paris Cabaret Connexion will bring workshops, performances and master classes to town on all things cabaret.
For more information about Chicago Cabaret Professionals and its upcoming events visit https://chicagocabaret.org.
Photo credit: Phillip Onofrio