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Cabaret Gets a Hand

Where do Utah’s theatrical singers go between performances?


Piano man Kevin Christensen and local thespian Jacob Johnson hope they will consider participating in a new cabaret evening called Cast Party SLC, which is currently holding court in the front room at Salt Lake Acting Company in the Marmalade district. Christensen is the music guy while Johnson is handling the business side of the venture.

“Salt Lake doesn’t have a cabaret culture,” said Christensen, who is known around Salt Lake as the Piano Man SLC. “Cabaret is its own beast. It’s neither theatre and not jazz, but it is both.”

Originating in Paris in the 1880s, cabaret blossomed in many European cities. Eventually it made its way to over United States in 1910 where it was popular in New York’s entertainment cafés and dinner hotspots. Cabaret is typically held in the evening in a café setting complete with food and libations. Talent usually performs among the tables and patrons, actually interacting with the audience.

Cabaret may be familiar to many because of Bob Fosse’s acclaimed Academy Award film of the same name. This movie, which stared Liza Minnelli, depicted what a 1932 Berlin cabaret might have looked like, with performers presenting torch songs, satirical sketches and transvestite acts throughout the film.

In fact, cabaret has a long history of cross dressing.

“A drag show is kind of like cabaret. Maybe that is why the community is attracted to this form of entertainment,” said Christensen.

Christensen and Johnson are not sure how this cabaret night will work out. But if past Saturday nights are any indication, future performances may be very successful. After asking performers they personally knew to participate, the two came up with an impressive line up: local actress Ginger Bess Simons performed; Sam Wessels sang from his new musical called Cancer; accordionist Brian Hubrich did some musical comedy; and Elsbeth Gugi donned a top hat and tuxedo for a performance reminiscent of cabaret icon Marlene Dietrich. Cast Party SLC plans on two more Saturday night shows in April, and then two more in May at the Salt Lake Acting Company. After that, they will see if there is enough interest to continue.

“Salt Lake City is not on the cabaret circuit, but one exists,” said Christensen, who hopes that they will be able to attract performers on this circuit.

“I thought we might have people beating down the doors, but that hasn’t been the case,” said Johnson. “I want it to be open to anyone that wants to perform. Anyone interested meets with Kevin and he makes the final decision on who performs.”

Both Christensen and Johnson have years of experience in musical theater and performance.

Johnson’s parents were actors and theater and arts instructors. His father, Ron Johnson, has performed in thirty-three productions at Hale Center Theatre alone, while his mother had a role on the long-running television show Touched by an Angel, which was filmed largely in Utah.

Originally from Grantsville, Utah, Johnson studied theatre at the University of Utah and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he joined Actors’ Equity, the labor union representing actors and stage managers. After not getting much work in Los Angeles, Johnson returned to Salt Lake City and has been working steadily since. 

“I tried out for Saturday’s Voyeur and didn’t think I had made it,” said Johnson, who will be making his fourth appearance in this season’s production of Utah’s iconic comedy and musical stage production. “I was surprised when they called me after a couple of weeks.”

Johnson has also been in Hale Center, Pioneer Theater and Off Broadway Theater productions and has also developed and taught a drama program at Montessori schools of Salt Lake City.

“And I still have to have another job, to help pay the bills,” he added.

Christensen moved to Utah in the 80s, after living in Portland, Oregon where he says he was involved in the ‘evangelical movement’ and was cabaret, Portland-style.

“We had a classical guitarist, a comedian, a baritone and some Broadway singers who traveled around the Northwest with the show,” he said. “I eventually spun off and created a country rock band.”

Locally, Christensen has been playing the piano for Pioneer Theater and doing receptions at Ballet West. He is also the permanent “sub” at The Embassy Suites and has played at Marriott Hotel for five years. He was featured at Zaccheo’s Italian Restaurant for 11 years.

“I can do thousand of songs,” said Christensen. “I also did one theater production in Portland  called Mormon American Princess with Steven Fales.”

Christensen and Johnson have modeled their cabaret night on the highly successful, monthly Upright Cabaret at Mark’s Restaurant in West Hollywood, Calif. Both have visited famed Birdland Jazz Club in New York City, and hope to create an atmosphere in Salt Lake City like the atmosphere in that club.
“My original idea was to hire a pianist, charge five dollars, and pay the pianist,” said Johnson. “But as it is, we are just able to pay for operating expenses. We are in the process of purchasing the piano Kevin is using.”

Christensen and Johnson hope to attract Utah theater performers, up-and-coming talent who may want to try out new material, and young performance artists with unique talents and voices.

“It is an inexpensive way to experience Utah’s burgeoning vocal and performance talent,” noted Christensen.

And a great way to experience a Saturday night in Salt Lake City.

Cast Party SLC will partner with Voodoo Darlings Burlesque Troupe for a fundraiser with proceeds going to Make-A-Wish Foundation on May 9. It will also present shows at Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W 500 N, on Saturday nights, April 18 and 25 and May 2 and 9. For auditions and more info, send an email to [email protected] or call (801) 363-7522.

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