Cabaret Life NYC: With the Urban Stages 12-Day Winter Rhythms Series Opening 12/2, Producer Peter Napolitano Offers An Inside Look

Cabaret Features and Commentary by Stephen Hanks

It may not be like getting a gift on each of the 12 Days of Christmas, but for cabaret and musical theater lovers, the 6th 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 2-14 (no shows on Dec. 9), more than 100 singers, musicians, and songwriters will perform in an eclectic mix of 20 shows including one-night-only group shows, excerpts from new musicals, solo shows, open mics, late night spotlights, and family matinees, 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.

Four years ago, Urban Stages Artistic Director Frances Hill brought in MAC and Bistro award-winning director, lyricist and producer Peter Napolitano to oversee 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 opened with a Centennial Celebration of Mary Martin. This year, on Tuesday, Dec. 2, Winter Rhythms 2014 will kick off with a star-studded tribute to Bing Crosby, legendary star of popular song, film and television, who will always be a holiday icon thanks to the Irving Berlin song, "White Christmas."

(For a complete list of this year's Winter Rhythms shows and performers go to:
http://urbanstages.org/winterrhythms2014)

BroadwayWorld.com Cabaret Columnist Stephen Hanks recently caught up with Napolitano to get some insights into this year's program. [Full disclosure alert: Hanks will be curating and hosting the December 13 show, "Salute to Singer/Songwriters of the Seventies" at 7pm.]

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

Peter Napolitano: In 2009, Frances Hill (right in photo) decided she wanted to do a cabaret series in December to raise money for the theatre's Outreach Program. For the first two years, the Series was called Cabaret Nights and primarily featured existing solo shows that had previously 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 called Musical Legends.

PN: Yes. Frances wanted to do four solo cabaret shows in repertory, but was planning to leave New York on a fund raising trip and wasn't sure how it would come together. I offered to help her 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 series, renamed Winter Rhythms, and that led to my joining the company, where I am now as Director of Musical Programming and Associate Producer.

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

PN: My idea was to broaden the scope of the series beyond pre-existing cabaret shows to include excerpts from musicals in progress by top writers like Douglas J. Cohen and Andy Monroe, special event group concerts like last year's An Evening with Don Rebic and Friends and premieres of brand new shows by artists like Tanya Holt and Mary Foster Conklin that went on to successful runs in cabaret clubs. All in all we're doing 20 different shows in 12 days with literally something for everyone!

SH: Putting together a program like this for a December run must be a daunting task. How do you construct this entertainment jigsaw puzzle with so many shows and performers?

PN: (Laughing) I beg other people to help me! Seriously, I could never pull this off without the help of the entire Urban Stages team, especially Doug Mills and Michelle Tobias, who will be designing sound and lights for all the shows, and of course the founder of the feast, Artistic Director Frances Hill. But I am especially indebted to the amazingly generous, talented colleagues I call "Producing Artists," each of whom are in charge of their respective shows. They include Will Friedwald, who's helming a centennial celebration of Broadway/Hollywood songwriter Hugh Martin on December 4 called Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas with a great cast including Eric Comstock, Barbara Fasano, Gabrielle Stravelli and a mystery guest so special, she's singing both the title tune and "The Trolley Song"! Tom Toce will produce and host an evening of MAC Award-winning songs performed by Julie Gold. Sidney Meyer, Tom Gamblin and many more on Dec 12, and also conceived and directed Marissa Mulder's acclaimed solo show, Living Standards, on Dec. 5.

On Dec. 8, Tony winner Len Cariou, Rita Gardner of The Fantasticks fame, and 54 Below's Phil Geoffrey Bond are featured in A Solo Trio, which are excerpts from three one-person theatre pieces. On Dec. 10, Adam B. Shapiro is bringing back his solo show Nothing Normal and on Dec. 13 will produce and host a group show tribute to Jim Henson and Sesame Street, with special guest Tony nominee Stephanie D'Abruzzo. We'll also feature Barry Levitt's Jazz Jam, with the maestro leading his trio and guest vocalists Hilary Kole, Michele Bautier, and Sunny Leigh on Dec 10, and on Dec. 7 we'll have Daryl Glenn's Daryl Sings Steve: Songs by Sondheim. On Dec. 11, one of New York's finest jazz guitarists, Sean Harkness, is creating a special show called Broadway By Guitar, featuring new arrangements of contemporary and classic show tunes performed by Sean and his friends: Karen Akers, Scott Chapman, Janice Hall, Nina Hennessey, Stearns Matthews, and Karen Oberlin. And a certain cabaret columnist with the initials S.H. is producing and hosting A Salute to Singer/Songwriters of the Seventies on Dec. 13 with another who's who cast including Carole J. Bufford, Lauren Fox, Natalie Douglas, Laurie Krauz, Meg Flather, and Barbara Porteus, with the terrific Jon Weber as Musical Director.

SH: (Chuckling) Yeah, I think I heard about that "Seventies" show. What excerpts from original musicals are being done?

PN: On Dec. 3rd, one of our outstanding lyricists, Stephen Cole, is presenting "Cole Mining," selections from his produced and upcoming musicals with Marni Nixon, Klea Blackhurst, Colleen Zenk, George Dvorsky and Sarah Zahn, among others. On Dec 6, multi award-winning songwriter Steve Schalchlin's wonderful song cycle New World Waking takes the stage and on Dec. 7, five of my BMI Musical Theatre Workshop colleagues (Beth Falcone, Kathy Lombardi, Mary Liz McNamara, Tracy Sallows and Sara Wordsworth) present scenes and songs from their terrific shows in a program called Furthermore.

SH: Tell us more about this year's opening night tribute to Bing Crosby.

PN: Bill Zeffiro is hosting, musical directing, and curating this special "cabaret toast" to "Der Bingle" on Dec. 2, featuring a great line-up: Steve Ross, Jeff Harnar, Julie Reyburn, Miles Phillips, Susan Winter, Anna Marie Sell, Marissa Miller, Marissa Mulder, and Mary Foster Conklin, with a champagne reception following the show. There will also be a special appearance by celebrated jazz critic and Crosby biographer Gary Giddens, who, coincidentally is one of the experts featured in the new PBS American Masters documentary on Bing which premieres on . . . you guessed it, Dec. 2! So, we'll have Gary live on our stage talking about the "King of the Crooners" at 7pm and then the nation will see him doing the same thing on TV later that same night. Bill is also creating special arrangements of Crosby signature songs just for this evening, as are many of the artists involved in the series. That's what makes Winter Rhythms so exhilarating: All of these great talents going the extra mile to put together these one of a kind shows that in most cases will only be seen by the audiences lucky enough to attend each on the one night they're performed! I still get people who were 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 (except opening and closing nights) are only $25, well, it's an incredible cabaret and musical theatre lover's bargain and a great gift idea, too!

SH: You're also doing Open Mics this year for the first time, right?

PN: Right! On both Friday nights, there will be an Open Mic following the 7pm show. On Friday, Dec. 5 at 9pm, Matthew Martin Ward will be at the piano, I will host and the sign-up starts at 8:30. On Friday, Dec. 12, we are so excited to be hosting a Metrojam Reunion! Joe Bachana and Jenna Esposito will be on hand to host with the Metrojam band. [Admission for each open mic is only $10.] I hope that performers will come out to sing in our lovely, intimate theatre with full lights and sound, knowing that their ticket price will benefit arts and education.

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 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: I'm sure those kids would probably love the closing night Winter Rhythms show you have planned on Dec. 14.

PN. Yes, it's called From All of Us to All of You: Seasonal Songs and Disney, Too! That ever charming, effervescent "Character Man," Jim Brochu hosts, with Clint Holmes, Karen Mason, Stacy Sullivan, Lennie Watts, Dana Lorge, Gretchen Reinhagen, Sue Matsuki & Edd Clark, Doreen Montalvo and more alternating holiday standards with songs from Disney movies, followed, like the opening night, with a champagne reception. I will then go home and sleep till Christmas.

SH: Not surprising. 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. We can't wait for opening night!

Urban Stages Theatre is located on 259 West 30th Street. This year's Winter Rhythms opens on December 2 with A Tribute to Bing Crosby with a champagne reception afterwards for $40. The closing December 14 Holiday/Disney Concert/Reception is also $40. All other shows are $25, except the two open mics, which are $10. No minimum. Wine and soft drinks will be available for a suggested donation of $5 and may be brought to your seats. Tickets may be purchased on www.smarttix.com or 212 868-4444. Please visit the Urban Stages website for more info: www.urbanstages.org.

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