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Let them entertain you

The singers, drag kings, and showgirls of the small stage

Onstage at the intimate Cambridge cafe, ZuZu!, a mother of three from Dorchester who goes by the stage name Miss Mary Mac is pulling her "heart" of raw beef liver out of her chest in a wittily gruesome take on "All of Me," the standard made popular by Louis Armstrong. Accompanying her is Kitty Heels, a youngish blond in an elegant 1920s-style frock, who bends mournful notes from a saw.

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 blossoming.

Chanteuse & muse

Leah 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 performs.

"I have the voice where I could probably pull off doing standards, but I would be bored," she said.

Traditional 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.

The audience, 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."

Among 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.

Callahan compares 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.

"I'm really not doing it to please the audience," Callahan said. "We certainly want to, but we're kind of doing it for each other."

Callahan 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 cabaret."

Raw Bar

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

A 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.

It 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.

As 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 deeper.

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 itself."

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

What 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 spectacle."

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."

The 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

Wednesdays in March at (get time). With instrumental surf band Electrolux, Lizard Lounge, 1667 Mass. Ave., Cambridge. 617-547-0759.


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