Cabaret preview: Women Under the Influence

"Women Under the Influence": L-R: Carol Schmidt, Michlle Isam, Debbie Schuster, and Katie McGrath

Ask most folks what kind of music they associate with cabaret and you’ll likely get some mix of “great American songbook” and “show tunes”. No surprise there; the Golden Age of American songwriting is, in fact, well represented on the small stage. Tim Schall’s entertaining and informative “Rodgers and Hart Songbook” from a couple weeks ago was a classic example.

But the cabaret tent is a big one, and in just the past year here in St. Louis alone we’ve had shows based on such diverse sources as contemporary country (Jeff Wright’s Southern Roots), 1950s and ‘60s TV themes (Ken Haller’s The TV Show), and turn-of-the-last-century vaudeville (my own Just a Song at Twilight).

I bring all this up because last night (Monday, November 12) I had the pleasure of sitting in on a rehearsal by a new quartet, Women Under the Influence (three of the members of which I’ve worked with on stage in the past), that also takes its inspiration from performers whose work is not particularly well represented on the cabaret scene: the girl groups and soul sisters of the 1960s. Pop and R&B classics like “Met Him on a Sunday,” “He’s So Fine,” “Come See About Me,” and “He’s a Rebel” make up most of the set list, but there are also a few nods to contemporary stars like Adele (“Rumor Has It”), Rhiana (“Take a Bow”), and even Dolly Parton (“Jolene”).

This isn’t just a nostalgia trip, though. The essence of cabaret is the way in which the artist puts his or her own stamp on the music and makes it into something new. The members of WUI—Carol Schmidt and Michele Isam of “Jasmine” fame, along with local cabaret stars Debbie Schuster and Katie McGrath—are well-established performers with their own unique styles. Carol is pianist and music director for the show, with Michele filling in on other instruments (percussion and harmonica at the rehearsal I attended). They’re making all of those tunes their own—with tight vocal harmonies and even a bit of swingin’ ’60s choreography—and, in classic cabaret style, telling a story in the process.

By artfully arranging the songs, WUI’s show moves from the first crush, through true love, down into betrayal and back up into independence. It’s could be the story of one woman or of late 20th century women in general. It might even be a little of both. WUI are creating a space for ambiguity there, and ambiguity is where art lives.

The Women Under the Influence show is being produced by singer Robert Breig’s Mariposa Artists (the increase in local cabaret producers is a positive trend I may address in a future post) and will be presented this Saturday, November 17th, at 8 PM in the Showroom at Joe Buck’s Restaurant at 10th and Clark downtown. The space, I’m told, seats around 120 in a very “night clubby” ambience. And, of course, the bar and restaurant are there for your dining and drinking needs.

Tickets are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/281908. There’s even a good cause involved; a portion of the evening’s proceeds will be donated to Places For People, whose mission is “[t]o provide innovative and effective mental health services to people in need while creating a system of care that promotes personal recovery.”

It’s just another reminder that there’s a lot more to the cabaret scene than one might suppose. It’s why I love going to cabaret shows; you never know when you’re going to encounter something new and surprising. And who doesn’t like a good surprise?

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