Cabaret 313 brings rare entertainment to Detroit
BY SAM SCHLENNER
OU News Bureau
March is ending with something the Motor City does not have too much of: cabaret.
Cabaret 313 will bring Tony-nominated actress, dancer and singer Valarie Pettiford to the Chrysler Black Box Theatre at the Detroit Opera House for two packed shows March 28.
Since December 2012, Cabaret 313 — “dedicated to bringing professional cabaret to Detroit” — has presented eight nights of storytelling through song.
“No one in Detroit has this,” said Allan Nachman, a real estate attorney and one of the founders of Cabaret 313. “We’re the only ones that do it. You have to go to New York or Chicago or San Francisco to even hear this type of thing.”
Detroit’s musical reputation is rich, said Sandi Reitelman, the other founder, who has a background in marketing and nonprofit arts management. There’s Motown, classical, hip-hop, techno, opera.
“But before we came on the scene, we really didn’t have a cabaret scene,” Reitelman said. “And now, we do.”
A Cabaret 313 hallmark is world-class quality, she said. They’ve got the aficionados covered.
“I’m really not stretching it,” Nachman said, “We present the Jackson Pollocks, the Renoirs, the van Goghs of the cabaret world. I mean these are the best.”
People have told Reitelman and Nachman that the Cabaret 313 shows make them feel like they’re in New York.
“My reaction is, ‘That is absolutely great,’ ” Reitelman said.
But they have a different goal, which is for people to say, “This is what Detroit feels like.”
Cabaret 313 has put on performances at such venues as the Detroit Opera House, the Music Box at the Max M. Fisher Music Center and the Jazz Café at Music Hall.
“People really do get a great taste of Detroit when they come to these,” Reitelman said.
Cabaret 313 has made it even tastier for young people. A limited number of tickets are $25 apiece for those under 30. Nachman said young attendees love it and return. Reitelman agreed, but expanded the age range.
“Almost all of the people who come, come back,” she said.
Even people who say they don’t like to attend musical performances find cabaret neat, Nachman said.
“It’s interesting what happens once you drink the Kool-Aid.”
What is cabaret?
There are more racy uses of the word “cabaret,” but this is not that.
“What cabaret really is, is storytelling through song, in an intimate setting, where the singer forges an emotional connection with the audience,” Reitelman said.
This is merely the technical definition.
“The main thing you should know is that these things are really fun,” she said. “People have a good time.”
Traditional cabaret performers draw from the Great American Songbook.
“Gershwin,” Nachman said. “Cole Porter.”
The intimate part comes because cabaret performers do not sing to a concert audience. A typical Cabaret 313 crowd is limited to 125.
The singers perform, and in between songs, relate the performance to what occurs beyond the venue’s doors.
Cabaret 313, too, isn’t just about the performance itself. Every few months, when certain performers are in town, the organization invites them to give a master class to Wayne State University musical theater students.
“They’re absolutely fantastic classes to observe,” Reitelman said. “You can really appreciate what the kids are taking in from these teachers.”
It’s really a two-way street: Cabaret 313 brings professional cabaret to Detroit, and they help provide the education to foster that art form.
And it’s not just for Wayne State. Reitelman said they want Oakland University students to observe some classes and maybe even get in on the action.
Cabaret 313 has set up master classes with singers Amanda McBroom, Scott Coulter, Morgan James and Liz Callaway. On March 27, Valarie Pettiford will teach one. The following evening, she’ll perform her two shows, but the instruction will not stop.
The students will back her up on a specially arranged song.
Word on the street
Mary Kramer, publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business, attended one of the salon soirees Cabaret 313 presented in its infancy, before it did public performances.
“I got hooked on it,” she said.
But that first show in a Midtown loft was not Kramer’s first brush with cabaret. When she moved to Detroit in the late ’80s, it was performed in a couple of places.
Lately, she said, there hasn’t been much cabaret in the city, and it’s good to bring it back, drawing new audiences and new talent with the effort.
Plus, Kramer said, when the performers come to Detroit, they’re treated right. If there’s time, Nachman and Reitelman take them out to dinner and show them the city. The crowds are warm and enthusiastic. All this can reflect well on the singers.
“They leave with a different image of Detroit than the image they may have arrived with,” Kramer said. “A better image.”
“The performance is just top-notch,” said John Harris, vice president of branch operations of the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit. “Your expectations are exceeded.”
Two of Cabaret 313’s evenings have been hosted at the Marlene Boll Theatre in the Boll Family YMCA in downtown Detroit. The two shows Jan. 17 nearly sold out.
Harris thinks cabaret can have a role in Detroit’s recovery.
“It’s starting to bring some people back to the city to consider other forms of entertainment,” he said.
By bringing in quality performers and booking them at quality venues, cabaret can make downtown Detroit more of a draw, he said. With that increased draw would come an increase in the residual effect of the pre-show meal and the after-show drink.
Rich Homberg, president and CEO of Detroit Public Television, said the Nachman-Reitelman duo is dedicated, genuine and books high-quality performers.
“I guess they’ll succeed,” he said, “and I think they’ll have some fun along the way, too.” Later, Homberg corrected himself: “I would say, they’ve already succeeded.”
Homberg said Detroit is one of the most important cultural cities in America, and that Cabaret 313 is adding on to it.
“It becomes another element of an emerging story that says, ‘Detroit’s incredible, and it’s becoming even more incredible,’” he said. “It all works.”
He said the more things Detroit has that people love—be it opera, symphony, art—the more people will love Detroit. Now you can love the cabaret in Detroit. And people do, he said.
“People are there with joy on their faces,” he said. “This evening is particularly stirring for them. … This is maybe the most important thing they’ve done all year. And the most rewarding thing.”
David DiChiera — founder and artistic director of Michigan Opera Theatre — said cabaret crowds like the intimacy of the cabaret performance.
“Audiences feel like they are completely drawn in to the individual,” he said. “It’s what makes this art form unique.”
DiChiera thinks cabaret has a place in Detroit’s music scene.
“I think it fits already.”
“We have a lot of supporters who have been really generous,” Reitelman said.
But it takes a significant amount of work and time to put on the shows with that money, according to Nachman.
“We’re just doing it for the passion, really,” he said.
When Cabaret 313 was founded, Nachman and Reitelman had a blank slate when they contacted artists. Now, with eight nights of cabaret under their belt — not counting the three shows held in homes before bringing it to the public — that slate is not nearly as blank.
“We’ve passed that barrier of credibility,” Nachman said.
“In a very short time,” Reitelman said.
At the end of this year, Cabaret 313 will have been in operation for three years. They’ve been tested, and made it, Nachman said, and within the next six months will be the time to reach out to foundations for funding. There is an invisible ceiling to how much individuals will want to donate. But they have gotten Cabaret 313 off the ground.
With the foundation money, Cabaret 313 should be able to lower ticket prices, which is one of its goals.
“We’re not here to make money,” Nachman said. “We just want to cover our costs.”
The picture of Cabaret 313 five years down the road is not so clear.
“Assuming that we continue with the same verve and passion that we have,” Nachman said, “and assuming that we continue to get the traction that we’ve been getting, and notoriety and the recognition, we see it growing in geometric proportions.”
It’s the word-of-mouth growth factor. If people like the shows, they’ll tell others. It’s evident in the upcoming Pettiford show Saturday, March 28.
The 7 p.m. show oversold, and the 9:45 is nearly sold out.
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