Earlier that night, Heels was backed by the Sob
Sisters, who played cello as she sang an original melody to a natty
man with a handlebar mustache about how she gets "whiskered away" by
gents with dapper facial hair.
Between these numbers, Mac served
as MC, delivering campy, impromptu jokes like an indie-rock Ethel
Merman, setting up the microphone between sets, and shouting lines from
the back of the room as she dressed performers.
This is Boston's
underground cabaret scene, which is chock-a-block with strong
personalities organizing creative, campy nights out. In greater
numbers, like-minded performers are collaborating on vignettes that
incorporate music, dance, and zany humor. While they often perform
under the radar of more prominent acts like the Dresden Dolls or the
dance troupe Thru the Keyhole Burlesque, they draw on the same
influences and aesthetics.
Pushing the boundaries of traditional
cabaret, which more often features show tunes and American standards,
these offbeat acts create thought-provoking entertainment that's not
afraid to arouse the audience.
This revival, spurred by its
leaders' boredom with traditional rock shows, has actually been on the
rise in Boston for more than a decade. Past heavyweights have included
the Burlesque Revival Association and former Shelley Winters Project
frontman Rick Berlin, who championed all manner of indie rockers and
writers at his Lizard Lounge and Jacques Cabaret nights and still
performs solo keyboard numbers.
But the vigor of the current
batch of amateur singers, striptease artists, and champions of lost
arts, many of whom emerged from earlier performance groups, points to a
Chanteuse & muse
Callahan has a lovely, delicate voice, with a delivery that evokes both
old Europe and bossa nova. She dresses the part of the chanteuse, too,
in her black, fitted evening gown. But none of these refinements begin
to describe the zany artiness of this former punk frontwoman when she
"I have the voice where I could probably pull off doing standards, but I would be bored," she said.
performances, even those by her former costume-bedecked rock band
Turkish Delight, were too structured to allow the edgy improvisations
that thrill her. But she has found the anything-goes joie de vivre she
craved since she began gathering a loose group of local acts together
six months ago for Raw Bar, a monthly night she hosts at Jacques, a
nightclub otherwise known for female impersonators.
which has been known to chime in with its own raucous comments, is the
best part, Callahan says. "There's definitely not a lot of separation
from the audience and the stage. I feel like it's just a party."
Raw Bar's regular contributors are the six-piece 1930s German
cabaret-style band Sukey Tawdry, featuring keyboards, clarinet, and
Kitty Heels (Leigh Calabrese) on saw with Miss Mary Mac (Mary McCarthy)
singing, and the eclectic, carnival-esque duo What Time Is It Mr. Fox?,
fronted by singer and keyboardist Brian King.
the relationship that has flourished between the performers to an
improv comedy troupe. Highlights from their bold, off-the-cuff
performances at Jacques have included an impromptu, costumed belly
dance by Ken Glover and an instrumental Middle Eastern number played by
Kristen Miller, culminating when Glover lifted an audience member
above his head, striking fear into the hearts of the audience.
really not doing it to please the audience," Callahan said. "We
certainly want to, but we're kind of doing it for each other."
hopes to see this kind of offbeat entertainment spread throughout the
city. She has received offers to start similar nights at other clubs,
including a possible Monday night residency at Johnny D's, and recently
she started "Le Cabaret Des Enfants Terribles" at PA's Lounge in
Somerville. The new night's name pays homage to Bertolt Brecht, and
Callahan hopes to conjure his surrealist spirit and push the boundaries
even further than she has.
"I want to make a venue for people and
create a space for artists that more artistic than commercial," she
said. "It's the sort of thing that harkens back to the old style of
March 12 at 9 p.m.
Jacques Underground, 79 Broadway, Boston, 617-426-8902. $8. Callahan
also performs March 8 at Johnny D's, 17 Holland St., Davis Square,
Somerville. 617-776-2004. 21+. $5.
Beau of the ball
middle-age management type in an boxy tuxedo who has been a sad sack
since his wife left him may seem like an odd choice for a drag king
persona, especially as this underground art form more commonly finds
female performers donning macho male characters. The challenge of
questioning male sexual roles, almost in the same way that burlesque
plays with female ideals, was a driving creative force for Aliza
Shapiro when she invented her Heywood Wakefield character.
began as a Valentine's Day present in 2000 for Shapiro's
then-girlfriend. The Truth Serum Productions founder and longtime
independent rock-show producer enjoyed herself enough during her first
run to start exploring how the sexuality of white-collar men could be
dramatized. Thus the endearingly awkward Wakefield was born.
MC of the monthly Glitter Switch: Drag/Karaoke event, he shares his
heartache by introducing sentimental love songs that he sings with
self-deprecating stories of his ex-wife's criticisms and the lessons of
love that each song offers.
The off-the-radar nightspot Ekco
Lounge in Chinatown serves as home for the spirited show, which
features guest appearances by other drag kings and local cabaret and
burlesque performers, who join the audience in the intimate lounge. The
characters throw out silly jokes about the lyrics to Wakefield's songs
and jump onstage for impromptu skits when audience volunteers for
karaoke are scarce.
Shapiro thrives on helping other women find
their inner drag kings. Before her regular Saturday show last month,
she held a workshop on the basics of walking, talking, and feeling
like a man. Shapiro and her fellow kings offered tips on everything
from binding their chests to applying facial hair with theatrical
adhesive and pushing their voicese out from their stomachs to sound
At the end of the workshop, two new kings emerged singing
karaoke with gusto - one a swaggering playboy in a suit, the other a
'70s soul brother with a giant afro.
"The goal in starting
Glitter Switch was to create a space where we could entertain people,
but also allow performers to practice their skills on stage," Shapiro
said. "It was a conscious effort to break down the divide between the
audience and performers, and karaoke kind of does that in and of
Shapiro has overcome years of stage fright to come into
her own as a performer, for which she gives some credit to the
cabaret/burlesque community. Shapiro laughed as she recalled an
appearance at Raw Bar, during which Callahan ruffled her character's
feathers by singing to him suggestively.
When Callahan crooned
her original song, "Better Than You," the line "under it all, you're so
very small" took on an extra layer of meaning sung to a drag king.
"I do think that it's so sexy, the collaboration that happens on stage," Shapiro said.
Glitter Switch: Drag/Karaoke
March 20 at 8 p.m. Ekco Lounge, 41 Essex St., Chinatown, Boston. 21+, $10.
Cat scratch fever
happens when a professional undertaker with a childhood love of Jean
Harlow and a pop culture obsession meets a choreographer who shares her
horror movie fascination? When the mortician in question is Miss
Firecracker, formerly of Through the Keyhole Burlesque, the result is
Black Cat Burlesque, a troupe that adds fresh, creepy camp to the art
form. "We dance to punk rock, and we do gory, blood-drenched acts,"
said Miss Firecracker, who does not disclose her real name to
reporters. "We do the classic bump-and-grind fan-dance strip tease as
well, but our black little hearts are certainly more focused on
Highlights from past performances include a number in
which Miss Firecracker assumed the role of Dr. Frankenstein, who
discovered that her monstrous creation could only be electrified by a
sultry striptease, and Mary Widow's Lizzie Borden tapdance as she
stripped from a Victorian dress and splashed vigorously in a tub of
fake blood. The gore factor is high but it's all in good fun. "May I
stress, we are very, very tongue-in-cheek," said Miss Firecracker.
"There's a lot of comedy and humor and kitsch in what we do."
four-member troupe, Miss Firecracker, her beau, monster mad illustrator
Mister Reusch, and choreographer Mary Widow and her undertaker
boyfriend, J. Cannibal, has hit the club circuit with some scary, sexy
shows since forming last summer. For DJ Vinny's dance party devoted to
B-movie director Russ Meyer, they acted out scenes from his film,
"Valley of the Dolls," and when biker gangs were the night's motif,
they had a "Girls Gone Wild" rumble with the dancers in the go-go
troupe Pandora's Foxes.
Another important element for the
creators is the chance to play around with gender stereotypes in horror
movie scenarios, liberating themselves from the usual woman-as-victim
plot lines. They also celebrate the burlesque revision of female
beauty, which rejects the notion that women have to be thin, much to
the delight of many women in the audience, according to Miss
Firecracker. "It's so important to see women who aren't this cookie
cutter media image out there and embracing their sexuality and having a
fun and entertaining time as well."
Black Cat Burlesque
in March at (get time). With instrumental surf band Electrolux, Lizard
Lounge, 1667 Mass. Ave., Cambridge. 617-547-0759.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.