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CABARET LIFE NYC: Director/Lyricist Peter Napolitano On Producing His Third WINTER RHYTHMS Series at Urban Stages, Dec 3-15


Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks

It may not be like getting a gift on every one of the 12 Days of Christmas, but for cabaret and musical theater lovers, the 5th Annual Urban Stages Winter Rhythms series--presented over a dozen nights at the not-for-profit Off-Broadway theatre on 259 West 30th Street--could be the closest thing to opening a daily present by the tree. From December 3-15, dozens of singers and musicians will perform in an eclectic mix of a dozen shows plus late night and matinee "extras," with all the proceeds from ticket sales dedicated to the Urban Stages "On Tour Outreach Program that brings more than 200 free multicultural theater and music programs to elementary and middle school age children and their families in libraries and schools throughout NYC five boroughs.

Three years ago, Urban Stages Artistic Director Frances Hill brought in MAC and Bistro award-winning director, lyricist and producer Peter Napolitano to produce the Winter Rhythms program and broaden its scope. 2011's opening night program featured a tribute to cabaret producer icon Donald Smith, which was his last public appearance before he died three months later. Last year, celebrated cabaret entertainer and Tony nominee Karen Akers opened the Series with her acclaimed tribute show Anything Goes: Karen Akers Sings Cole Porter. This year, on Tuesday, December 3rd, Winter Rhythms 2013 will open with a one night only Centennial Celebration of Mary Martin, honoring the 100th birthday of the musical theatre legend who starred in the original productions of South Pacific, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, etc.

(For a complete list of this year's Winter Rhythms shows and performers go to Cabaret Columnist Stephen Hanks recently caught up with the Sol Hurok of Urban Stages to learn how Napolitano has helped Winter Rhythms evolve and to get some insights into this year's program. [Full disclosure alert: Hanks will be curating and hosting the December 5 show, "Salute to Singer/Songwriters of the Seventies" at 7pm.]

Stephen Hanks: Peter, you've had so much on your plate the past few years, what with directing cabaret shows and developing and writing lyrics for your own musicals. Now you're producing your third successive Winter Rhythms Series for Urban Stages. How did you happen to get involved?

Peter Napolitano: Five years ago, Frances Hill decided she wanted to do a cabaret series in December to raise money for the Outreach Program. The first two years the Series was called Cabaret Nights and primarily featured existing shows that had played in clubs. In 2010, I directed Janice Hall's show, Grand Illusions: The Music of Marlene Dietrich, and it was included in the series.

SH: And then Hall's show ended up in the February 2011 Urban Stages tribute shows to four legendary singers. Is that what led to you getting more involved with Winter Rhythms?

PN: Frances wanted to do the "Musical Legends" program but was planning to leave New York on a fund raising trip and wasn't sure how it would come together. I offered to produce it and Frances gave me the job. It went so well and we enjoyed working together so much she then asked me to produce the 2011 winter program and that led to my joining the company as a "Producing Consultant" for all of its shows and the "Producer" of what we decided to now call Winter Rhythms.

SH: How did the series change when you came on board?

PN: My first idea was to vary the mix of shows, including excerpts from musicals in progress, jazz, classical, etc. Then we started creating original, special event group shows like the Tribute to Donald Smith and last year's Birthday Tribute to Frank Sinatra. This year, we decided to try four "Double Bill" nights, putting together two separate cabaret shows into a two-act evening, like Dec. 8th's mix of Julie Reyburn (far left in photo) bringing back her debut solo show, Fate Is Kind, paired with a special Best Of Marquee Five show that great vocal group is putting together just for Urban Stages

SH: Putting together a program like this for a December run must be a daunting task. How do you construct this entertainment jigsaw puzzle when you have to plan 12 shows over 12 days with so many performers?

PN: (Laughing) I beg other people to help me. Seriously, I could never pull this off without delegating to the Urban Stages' office staff, including the amazing technical expertise of Sean Hagerty and Meghan Santelli, and of course the guidance of Frances Hill. And many of the shows this year will be produced by amazingly generous, talented people I call "Producing Artists." They include Don Rebic, who has put together a smashing evening on December 12th, hosted by Don and his lovely wife, Christine Reisner-Rebic, with appearances by Leslie Uggams, Karen Akers, Lee Roy Reams, Eric Michael Gillett and Marti Stevens, to name a few. Then there's Will and Bill, Will Friedwald and Bill Zeffiro, who are curating and co-hosting Sinatra at the Movies on Dec. 7 with an amazing cast including Carole J. Bufford, Jeff Harnar, Allan Harris, Nicolas King and on and on. My frequent "cabaret partner in crime," Barry Levitt (left with Napolitano in photo above) is presenting his third consecutive jazz evening with his great quartet and guest vocalists Hilary Kole, Kat Gang and Gregory Generet in an evening of his own music. And then there's this columnist who's putting together a salute to Singer/Songwriters of the Seventies with another who's who cast.

SH: (Chuckling) Yeah, I think I heard about that.

PN: You see, in the first two years, we did two shows a night for a total of 22 and frankly, it was too much for everyone, including me. So this year, we thought we would make the shows a little longer, and focus our energies on 12 very special evenings, like the Mary Martin opener in which host Stephen Cole, Liam Forde and Matthew Martin Ward are busting their musical chops recreating the legendary Merman/Martin Medley duet from the 1953 Ford 50th Anniversary Television Show. No sheet music exists for this so these wonderful guys are really going that extra mile to do it for only one night. That's what makes Winter Rhythms so exhilarating to put together and so rewarding for audiences to attend. I still have people who were lucky enough to be there on Dec. 1, 2011 when we presented A Tribute to Donald Smith come up to me and say how memorable that evening was. And when you realize that there's no food/drink minimum and most shows are only $30, well, it's an incredible cabaret lover's bargain. We're also including a "return trip coupon" in the program. If you see one show, you can buy a ticket for another at 30% off.

SH: What excerpts from original musicals are being done.

PN: On Wednesday, Dec. 5th, in a program called Noteworthy, you'll be able to see a top flight cast including Kevin Dozier and Raissa Katona Bennett perform excerpts from musicals co-authored by my fellow BMI Musical Theatre Workshop colleague, the award-winning Andy Monroe. Also on the bill are excerpts from one of the funniest new musicals I've encountered in years: "Neurosis" by Greg Edwards and Ben Green.

SH: And you' re premiering a new show of your own, right?

PN: Well, we're calling it Highlights in Concert, but yeah, on Tuesday, Dec. 10th, Barry Levitt and I will see our first musical, That Way, performed by Janice Hall, Rob Langeder, Kenita Miller and Adam Shapiro. It's about a "60-ish" guy reviewing the challenges and changes in his life as a gay man during the last 50 years. A couple of the songs may sound familiar to cabaret audiences, but most of them are brand new, like "Mister Sissy and Mister Jock."

SH: The Urban Stages On Tour Outreach Program sounds like a wonderful educational gift for children throughout New York and keeping it going for more than 20 years is a great accomplishment. Can you give us a quick glimpse of how the program works?

PN: Frances Hill (photo, right) felt there was a need to bring theater and music to family audiences in the outer boroughs and 20 years later the program stages more than 200 events per year throughout the city at various libraries and schools for elementary and middle-school age children and their families. Urban Stages' Program Director Rachel Sullivan manages the Outreach Program and organizes the teacher/artists who perform the shows, including musicians, mimes and poets. For example, one show involves teaching kids the rudiments of poetry through the use of puppets and at the end of the show the kids write their own poems. Percussionist Rex Benicasa, who is well known in the cabaret community, presents a "Rhythm and Sound" program using the musical instruments he's collected from around the world and he invites the kids to play on them. There are also original children's musicals on topics such as the environment, Latin American and Native American folklore, and solo plays about major historical figures like Sojourner Truth, Sacagawea, and the first African-American female astronaut, Mae Jamison.

SH: Those kids would probably love the closing night Winter Rhythms show you have planned, From All of Us to All of You: Season Songs and Disney, Too! Do you have any surprises in store for that one? Will Mr. Disney finally be thawed out from his cryogenic chamber and make an appearance?

PN: [Laughs] Actually we do have a big surprise for that show, a singer who asked we not reveal their identity, but I'll give you a hint. He or she will bring a touch of spring to the show. But I can tell you that Lynn Cohen of the hit Hunger Games movie will appear along with many cabaret favorites like Terese Genecco, Deb Berman, Darryl Glenn, etc. alternating holiday standards with songs from Disney movies. By the way, do you know where that title "From All of Us to All of You" comes from?

SH: Hmmm, a song from Snow White?

PN: It's the title of the Christmas TV show that would be presented every year during the days of Walt Disney Presents and Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color in the 1950s and '60s. What was so special about those shows is that you'd see clips from the great Disney animated films that you could only see in theaters. That was pretty special when you were a kid. Hopefully, the people around my age who see our closing show at Winter Rhythms will remember.

SH: It sounds like another great series again this year, Peter.

PN: I hope so. Every show is so packed with talent I just hope each one gets the attention and audience it deserves. I mean I just realized that I haven't even mentioned Gretchen Reinhagen's brand new 70s show she's trying out on a double bill with Adam Shapiro's reprise of his unconventional Christmas show No Chestnuts. Or Janice Hall's brand new Hollywood show on a double bill with Karen Oberlin's "The Wizards of Oz" show straight from London or Sarah Rice bringing back her latest show which premiered at 54 Below, on a double bill with our tech wiz Sean Hagerty who is an incredible composer/musician. Then there are the weekend late shows at 10pm put together by the multi-talented Mr. Hagerty, including an open mic and Rob Lester's matinee teen show on Dec. 8 with special guest Karen Wyman. Whew, I think I covered everything.

Urban Stages Theatre is located on 259 West 30th Street. This year's Winter Rhythms opens on December 3 with an Opening Night concert with a champagne reception afterwards for $50. The December 12 and the closing December 15 concert/champagne receptions are also $50. All other shows are $30 and will run roughly 90 minutes. No minimum. Wine and soft drinks will be available for a suggested donation of $3. Tickets may be purchased on or 212 868-4444. You can visit the Urban Stages website for more info:

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