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Right this way, your table's waiting: St. Louis music lovers take to cabaret

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2009 - It's a Friday evening in Grand Center, and there's plenty of activity on the streets as people head to the Fox, the Sheldon, the Grandel and Jazz at the Bistro for a variety of concerts and theatrical performances. At the Kranzberg Arts Center on the northwest corner of Grand and Olive, people file into the space to catch a cabaret performance by St. Louis-based singer, Tim Schall.

Schall's performance is sold out, with a capacity crowd of 80 filling the tables in front of the stage. Although an audience of 80 may seem very small compared to the Fox's 4,000-plus capacity or the Sheldon's 700-plus seats, it's a real sign of validation for Schall and other St. Louis cabaret performers, such as Deborah Sharn, Kay Love, Ken Haller, Jeffrey Wright, Anna Blair, Stellie Siteman, Mary Dyson and other singers who have performed cabaret shows at the Kranzberg in 2009.

Cabaret is certainly not an art form that's new to St. Louis. Beginning in 2004, the Grandel Theater hosted an annual cabaret series for a decade, before moving for a time to the ballroom of the Sheldon Concert Hall. But at both venues, the focus was on nationally known stars, such as Ann Hampton Calloway, Stephen Ross, Andrea Marcovicci, Amanda McBroom and others who performed most often in New York clubs and on Broadway.

The recent growth of the local cabaret scene definitely began with those devotees of the cabaret series at the Grandel and the Sheldon. They loved the intimacy of cabaret and the structured series of theatrically performed songs -- all woven into the personality of the singer onstage. In the hands of master artists, such as Stephen Ross, themed shows based on legendary songwriters such as Cole Porter or the Gershwins -- or fabled Broadway entertainers -- provided complex, rewarding and memorable entertainment.

In November 2005, St. Louis cabaret fan Jim Dolan went out on a financial limb to present Stephen Ross not at the 300-seat Grandel, but in the intimate setting of Chez Leon restaurant in the Central West End. Only 90 seats were available, but Dolan believed that intimacy was the ideal setting for cabaret.

"I went to New York quite a bit when I really began to be fascinated with cabaret," he recalls. "And to me, the intimacy of cabaret is what makes it so special. So that's what I was trying to achieve, and it worked"

Dolan then produced other cabaret shows with national artists at the intimate 65-seat space on the second floor of the now-shuttered Savor restaurant on Lindell. During that process, he also began booking St. Louis-based singers who were trying out the cabaret style.

Almost all of those singers were alumni of a cabaret workshop that Tim Schall had started in St. Louis in August 2006.

Like Dolan, Schall was a regular at the Grandel's cabaret shows. With his theatrical background and a love of music and singing, he actually put together his own cabaret show. His big break came when he was accepted as one of 35 performers chosen to attend the first cabaret conference at Yale University in 2003.

"One of my teachers at that conference was Amanda McBroom, whom I had seen at the Grandel," recalls Schall. "She was a tremendous help and inspiration, and I soon found myself totally involved with cabaret. I started pulling together my own shows, performing wherever I could -- restaurants, small theaters, you name it."

Schall got to know New York cabaret singer Lina Koutrakos during visits to New York and other workshops. When she called him and asked if he could help her set up a cabaret workshop in St. Louis, Schall enthusiastically agreed. With Sharon Hunter, Schall set up a three-day workshop, issued a press release and hoped for a strong response. Thirteen singers signed up, and under the tutelage of Koutrakos, pianist/vocalist Rick Jensen and Schall, spent three days immersed in the world of cabaret.

The cabaret conference has been held every year since, almost doubling to 24 attendees in 2007 and 2008, and becoming a four-day event with more instructors as well. This year's conference is set for Aug. 13-16. According to Schall, many of the singers have returned year after year, working toward a greater knowledge of cabaret -- and developing their own shows in the process.

One such singer is Deborah Sharn, who has an impressive theatrical resume but wanted to make cabaret the next step in her career. She attended the 2007 cabaret conference, but it wasn't until she returned for the 2008 conference that everything seemed to come together for her.

"One of the things that I kept hearing at the first conference was that cabaret is about telling a story," explains Sharn. "It's not about getting caught up in your voice, but communicating the essence of the lyrics. That finally clicked for me the second time I took the cabaret conference in 2008. And that led directly to me working with Tim Schall as my director and putting together my own cabaret show at the Kranzberg. So my show is a direct result of the cabaret conference."

Sharn debuted her show in April, brought it back again to a sold-out house on June 27, and has another performance scheduled for Oct. 17. That repeat success is encouraging to both Sharn and Schall, and reinforces the importance of cabaret conferences in helping local performers get started in creating individual shows - and in building a cabaret community.

"The conference has been a strong bonding force for everyone who has taken it and gone on to do a show of their own," says Scharn. "They understand how much work goes into creating a show...and they come to support you when you're onstage."

"I'd say without a doubt that 99 percent of the people who have decided to do their own cabaret shows here in town have participated in the cabaret workshops," adds Schall. "And a lot of them have attended for multiple years. As a result, we've got a core group of cabaret performers who have really helped cabaret enjoy a huge growth spurt -- especially with the opening of the Kranzberg to replace Savor. And I've been pleasantly surprised and feel very positive about the ability of these performers to attract the size of audiences that are coming to the Kransberg. I think that's happening because we're giving audiences shows with substance."

But one question remains. Can St. Louis cabaret reach out to more of a general audience and move beyond 80-seat sellouts? Or is cabaret an artistic medium that survives best in very intimate settings? Bottom line, can a performer make a living exclusively doing cabaret?

"I honestly don't think you go into cabaret because of the money," says Sharn. "I think it's a personal stretch; at least that's how I see it for myself. Not to say you can't make money, but you have to do everything very wisely. But I also continue doing theater as well."

Schall remains optimistic that a larger audience for cabaret exists in St. Louis.

"So far, we really haven't marketed ourselves to the general public," he says. "Cabaret can work in larger venues like it did at the 300-seat Grandel when that series was running. I have hope and confidence that that next step to build a larger audience for cabaret here in St. Louis will be successful."

Terry Perkins, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered the St. Louis music scene.

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.