Twenty years ago, cabaret as an art form seemed ready to take hold in Austin.
Thanks especially to the late and terribly missed Karen Kuykendall and her surviving yet geographically relocated stage partner, Sterling Price-McKinney, as well as stellar standouts such as the deceased Joe York, Karen Kohler and others, this intense, intimate form of music theater could be savored almost any week of the year.
It didn’t take. Austin Cabaret Theatre, which followed in the grand footsteps of Austin Musical Theatre, periodically imported priceless talents such as Eartha Kitt, Elaine Stritch and Ann Hampton Callaway. It c ontinues to do so.
Yet the idea of cabaret as a regular Austin treat took a beating.
Texas Performing Arts under director Kathy Panoff has tried to soften the blow. The University of Texas program, for instance, succeeded where all other local presenters had failed, welcoming the immortal Barbara Cook, who sang soft, old tunes not that long before her death on Aug. 8. It was a performance for the ages.
This week, the UT group launches a cabaret mini-season starring three of the biggest guns in the business who will perform in the midsize McCullough Theatre on campus.
I first encountered Storm Large, who sings Sept. 21, when she subbed for China Forbes with the eclectic funsters of Pink Martini at ACL Live. Dominating the stage, this larger-than-life woman with tattoos, a fountain of hair, sexy outfits and a voice that makes grown men tremble in their seats was absolutely unforgettable.
For years a West Coast rock artist, Large shares her home base of Portland, Ore., with Pink Martini. There, she played Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” at Portland Stage, where she also presented an autobiographical show, “Crazy Enough.” I never saw the TV series, but she also made a sensation on the TV reality contest “Rock Star: Supernova” in 2006. Her act here is subtitled “Le Bonheur,” which doubles as the title of her 2014 album released by Heinz Records, founded by Pink Martini.
Despite its relatively capacious size, the McCullough might not be big enough to contain this bombshell of a talent.
Seth Rudetsky follows on Nov. 16 with his touring act, “Deconstructing Broadway.” A pianist for shows such as “Ragtime,” “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” Rudetsky has attracted a cult following for his “On Broadway” radio series. He also has produced five Actors Fund Fall Concerts that paired spectacular stars with unexpected material, such as Audra McDonald in “Dreamgirls” and Jennifer Hudson in “Hair.”
And the list goes on for this merry muse. Rudestky wrote “The Q Guide to Broadway,” “Seth’s Broadway Diary,” “The Rise and Fall of a Theater Geek,” as well as the novel “Broadway Nights.” He played himself on “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List” and starred opposite Sutton Foster in “They’re Playing Our Song” for the Actor Fund. He co-wrote and acted in “Disaster,” a wild take on the 1970s and its disaster films in New York. He writes a weekly column on playbill.com.
Is anyone more qualified to romp around the theme of show tunes? I’ve never witnessed his act live, but it’s time I did.
On Feb. 2, cabaret legend Ute Lemper lands at the McCullough. Lithe and sultry, Lemper channels the art form. She might as well be the direct artistic descendant of Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill and, before that, the Weimar underground theater that inspired the musical “Cabaret.”
Her act in Austin comes with the alluring appellation “Last Tango in Berlin,” which suggests not only the right place but a mood that could not be more apt for the art form.
Born in Munster, Germany, Lemper completed her studies at the Dance Academy in Cologne and the Max Reinhardt Seminar Drama School in Vienna. How’s that for some theater history?
She hit the professional stage in Vienna, Paris, London, New York and Berlin in shows such as “Peter Pan,” “Cats,” “Chicago” and — what else? — “Cabaret.” She also played Lola in a Berlin staging of “The Blue Angel.” The 1930 movie version of that story helped launch the career of Marlene Dietrich here and in Europe.
Lemper often performs with orchestras, sometimes singing material composed by Weill, Stephen Sondheim, Jacques Brel, Astor Piazzolla and the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, or other songs made famous by artists such as Dietrich or Edith Piaf. Her recordings are numerous and well-received.
I’ve never had the luxury of seeing Lemper live, but I’ve doted on her recorded performances and can’t think of a better way to round out a mini-season of five-star cabaret artists than this demigoddess.
Cabaret at UT
Sept. 21: Storm Large and Le Bonheur
Nov. 16: Seth Rudetsky’s “Deconstructing Broadway”
Feb. 2: Ute Lemper’s “Last Tango in Berlin”