Are you dreaming, as I am, of a bottomless martini with a side of regret? Clever lyrics wryly sung? Heartbreak delivered at 11 o’clock? If you answered yes to any of the above, you’ll be delighted to know that the Provincetown Cabaret Festival is returning this year from Monday, June 5 to Sunday, June 11 with 24 performers, 15 shows, and five master classes.
Cabaret is a risky kind of performance, one of the reasons fans are ardent about their favorite performers. They appreciate the tremendous courage and fortitude it takes.
“Nothing comes close to the highwire act of cabaret,” says performer Jo Brisbane. “It’s purely your story, your research, your laughs, your concept. It’s just you and the microphone — it feeds your soul and yet it’s scary as hell.” Brisbane, who performed a solo show last year, is returning this year with a group of Cape-based singers in a show called “The Vodka Stingers.”
“I want to feel something,” says festival organizer and performer Patricia Fitzgerald. “I go to be moved by the performers’ story or patter. And I hope to leave knowing that performer better than I did when I sat down.”
This year’s festival is titled “Sondheim by the Sea.” Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist who died in November 2021 at age 91, left a vast catalogue of songs that have inspired cabaret artists for decades. While it may sound like the festival is a memorial, Fitzpatrick says the theme was planned before his passing. “Many of our performers are big fans of Sondheim and expressed a desire to focus on his genius and the challenge of singing his complex lyrics, which are often combined with fast-paced and intricate musical compositions,” she says.
Although he primarily worked on Broadway, many Sondheim songs are so nuanced and layered that they work in a variety of contexts and resonate far beyond the realm of entertainment. “No musical theater composer or lyricist understood the dichotomy of relationships, human experience, and life’s nuances and paradoxes more eloquently than Stephen Sondheim,” says performer David Rhodes, who will debut a new act at the festival titled “Does Anyone Still Finish … a Hat?” Rhodes will also be teaching a master class at the festival.
Some believe Sondheim’s reach goes even further. “I think Sondheim will be held in similar regard to Shakespeare,” says performer Sean Patrick Murtagh. “His stories will remain timeless and relevant for generations to come, allowing new interpretations and presentations of his works.”
As in any celebration of Sondheim, one can expect lots of raising those aforementioned martini glasses — along with requests for the presence of circus employees, eavesdropping minors, the joys of oceanfront living, imminent loss of mental clarity, and an appreciation of finding oneself still breathing, uninjured, and in the presence of other people. (If you’re a Sondheim fan, you will get every one of those references.)
Sondheim’s intricate rhymes also have a way of working their way into the brain and staying there. Many of the festival performers said certain Sondheim lyrics are always running through their minds.
“ ‘You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice,’ ” says performer Elliot Roth, quoting The Witch from Into the Woods. “I find it running through my head at least once a day.” Karen Mack hears a lyric from Into the Woods, sung by Cinderella: “ ‘Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.’ ” Their show Sondheim With a Twist is one of several in the festival featuring more than one performer. Can the cabaret spotlight shine brightly enough for more than one star? Mack and Roth think so.
“A duo act is a fantastic way to not only collaborate in the process of building a show but to truly play off one another in live performance,” Roth says.
David Rhodes’s earworm is a line from Company. “ ‘You’re always sorry, you’re always grateful,’ ” says Rhodes. “These six words speak volumes.”
Meg Flather agrees: “Sondheim’s unique gift was capturing so clearly and simply the contradictions we all feel.” Flather’s act, Hammerstein & Sondheim: Carefully Taught, explores the connections between two musical theater titans: Oscar Hammerstein II (Oklahoma, South Pacific, The King & I) was Sondheim’s teacher and mentor.
While Sondheim’s presence looms large in this year’s festival, he’s not the subject of all the shows. Ray DeForest’s Doris Dear, America’s Perfect Housewife, which he performs in full drag, is about his mother. “I decided to create a character based on my mother to tell her story as she was slipping away from me with Alzheimer’s,” says DeForest. “After doing the show I realized that telling stories through this new form was a wonderful way to bring the joy of family to the masses.”
The week’s schedule includes a variety show on Friday, June 9 that will feature many of the festival performers. A gala on Saturday, June 10 will see the presentation of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, which will go to singer, comedian, mentor, and voiceover artist Warren Schein, and a themed Sunday brunch will pay homage to Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. See provincetowncabaretfest.com for more information.
‘Sondheim by the Sea’
The event: The 2023 Provincetown Cabaret Festival
The time: Monday, June 5 to Sunday, June 11
The place: Crown & Anchor, 247 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: $20-$60 for individual shows, classes, and events; see provincetowncabaretfest.com