If you’re like most people, when you read the word "cabaret," your first thought probably goes to Bob Fosse’s 1972 Oscar-winning film starring Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, and Michael York (that is of course, if you were born before 1972). Or for a more recent example, maybe you think of the re-imagined Broadway production that gave Alan Cumming’s career a big boost back in 1998.
Well, if that’s what you think, then there’s a whole new world of cabaret for you to discover, and according to a USA Today article, one of the top 10 places in America to experience cabaret is Odette’s in New Hope. Michael Feinstein – a fixture in the New York cabaret scene and a Grammy-nominated recording star – is quoted in that USA Today article saying that Odette’s was one of the best cabaret venues in the United States. Bob Egan, Odette’s creative director, says: "I got some amazing calls from very big names after that." Odette’s has been presenting some of the best in cabaret – musicians, solo performers, comedians, singers – for 18 years, and an evening at the cabaret makes a surprisingly affordable alternative to dinner and a movie.
Cabaret in the United States has its roots in the nightclubs and lounges of the 1920s – imagine those old black and white movies with the sultry singer and the guy at the piano (not Bill Murray in lounge lizard mode). For years it provided a place for up and coming performers to reach new audiences or for established veterans to remake careers. Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Barbra Streisand, Peter Allen, and Bette Midler all developed their acts and gained a following in the small cabaret clubs in New York, and veterans like Barbara Cook and Andrea Marcovicci, as well as the late Bobby Short and Rosemary Clooney all made the intimate cabaret houses the home base for the second stage in their careers.
In the 1980s cabaret started to become the home for edgier fringe shows – from drag queens to one-person shows that skirted the realm of performance art. These days cabaret refers to an eclectic mix of performers, and Odette’s is a favorite stop for many of them.
When the first cabaret performance opened at Odette’s, Egan had no idea what he was getting himself into. "I’d been playing the piano there," he says of Odette’s bar, "and I was working on a show with a friend. We had the idea to take this one dining room and try it out there. It was a blast; the room was just the right size."
Egan grew up the oldest of six siblings in Warminster, Pennsylvania. His father worked for the government at the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. He studied first at Bucks County Community College and then Philadelphia College of Performing Arts, for a total of three years, concentrating in music performance. "I didn’t finish school; I was getting offers from 1977 on," Egan says. "I was working five nights a week and didn’t feel like I needed the degree unless I wanted to teach, so I just went out and started working full time."
He saw most of his classmates go off to New York or Los Angeles to pursue a career on the stage or in television or music. "I wanted to stay local and do something important in my area," he says. He bought a house in New Hope in 1985 and started playing piano and hosting the piano bar – a sing-along crowd pleaser at Odette’s (where he celebrated his 20th year at the ivories this past Labor Day). But he was surprised to discover that there were not more alternative performance venues in the area. He found that he had to travel to see people performing in the intimate performance spaces that he liked.
The success of the first cabaret night at Odette’s convinced Egan he was on to something: "I thought there would be people like me who didn’t want to schlep to New York or Philadelphia to see these types of performances." He got a thumbs up from the management at Odette’s to bring a program of cabaret performances to the venue on a regular basis.
Odette’s schedule is as diverse as the individuals who perform there. Monday is showcase night – a.k.a. Bob’s Big Monday Showcase, where up and coming performers can try out their work. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. with a cover charge of $8 and a $10 food or drink minimum (these are fairly standard prices in the cabaret world). Egan says that with the showcase "I wanted to have a night where people who might not be ready to do their own show would have a chance to try out one or two songs, or where someone from New York might come down and try out two songs to get a feel for the venue."
The rest of the week audiences can enjoy a variety of artists – from Broadway pros (past performers have included Broadway veterans Maureen McGovern, Andrea McArdle, and Karen Mason) to singer-songwriters (Kenny Rankin) and jazz greats (Mose Allison), to popular New York cabaret performers delivering one-person shows, singing standards from the "Great American Songbook" as well as favorites from the baby boomer top-40. The cost of these shows varies depending on the performers; average prices are usually below $20, with a $10 food and drink minimum. "Major stars charge up around $29," says Egan. "Maureen McGovern was our most expensive performer and she was $37. But in New York, you’d pay $70 to see her."
Odette’s also hosts performers from New Jersey, including Susan Speidel, who performs two shows of her act "The Best Part of My Life" on Sunday, October 2, at 2 and 7:30 pm.
Speidel’s journey to cabaret performing was circuitous. She grew up in Rahway and graduated from Montclair State with a degree in English and Theater. After college, she auditioned for 10 years and says: "I put together a pretty decent living (as a performer). But after a while I realized that I wanted to have a little discretionary income and wanted to live without roommates." She went in search of "a real job."
As luck would have it, Speidel found a temporary job working for George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. She had performed as a member of GSP’s children’s theater company and heard that the receptionist was going on maternity leave; she took the job as a stop gap measure. The stop gap measure turned into a career.
GSP founder (and now Broadway producer) Eric Krebs was still at the helm of the New Brunswick theater at the time, and Speidel says he took her under her wing, giving her an informal graduate education in theater administration. She stayed at the theater for three years, eventually getting an official graduate education in theater administration, earning a masters from NYU – and moving from her original position as receptionist to the assistant to the general manager.
From there, Speidel moved to Paper Mill Playhouse where she was part of the fundraising team. "Paper Mill didn’t have a formal educational program then, so we did a proposal for educational outreach funding," says Speidel. They got the money, but after a while, Speidel says, the program grew so large that she wasn’t doing fundraising anymore; she was spending most of her time administering the theater’s educational programs. A new department was created with Speidel at the helm. She still holds that position, serving as Paper Mill’s director of education.
For the first few years after getting a "real job" Speidel says she just stopped performing. "Then slowly I started getting back into doing community theater." The juggle of rehearsals and the demands of her role at Paper Mill can get intense, which is part of the reason why she likes doing cabaret work. "Cabaret is the easiest thing to do when holding down a full-time job. It’s easy – I can do it when my schedule allows it."
What makes cabaret so unique, says Speidel, is the interplay between performer and audience. "The thing that I find compelling as a performer – and an audience member – is the intimacy. There are usually about 50 to 100 seats in most cabaret spaces." (Odette’s has seating for 65.) "As a performer, you can connect with the audience – you actually see people and they interact with you."
Speidel was introduced to Egan by a friend and fellow performer, Randy Roberts (who performs at Odette’s Friday through Sunday, October 21 through 23). "Randy showed Bob (Egan) a tape of something we’d done together," a piece she had done with Roberts and the Key West Pops. "I started doing some of the Odette’s showcases," she says. She was booked to do her full show last spring, but that’s when the second in a series of Delaware River floodings happened. Her October 2 performance is the first time she and Odette’s could reschedule.
The floods in the fall of 2004 and spring of 2005 that closed down the state offices in Trenton also had an adverse impact on Odette’s. Egan says that September 18, 2004, flood had Odette’s doors closed for six weeks. There was damage to both pianos – the one in the cabaret and the one in the piano bar – but they were repairable. "Most items were removed before the flood," he says, and there was only minor damage to everything else. The restaurant and cabaret re-opened on October 29.
The second flood, which came seven months later closed Odette’s doors for another six weeks; this time the water level came up higher, but, as Egan says, "only the cabaret piano was destroyed. The bar piano we were able to move out of the building the afternoon of the flood."
The long-term impact of the floods was limited. "Business in the cabaret and piano bar bounced back almost immediately," Egan says. "Many were anxiously awaiting the re-opening of the restaurant, thank God."
Some of Odette’s big name performers, like McGovern and Ann Hampton Calloway, have played in larger houses like the State Theater and NJPAC, but as Egan says, where else can you see a pro – seasoned or up-and-coming – for the cost of dinner and a movie, and have the best seat in the house no matter where you sit?
Or as Liza Minelli might say: What good is sitting alone in your room? Come, hear the music play; life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret.
Odette’s Cabaret, 274 South River Road, New Hope. Friday, September 30 and Saturday, October 1, Craig Rubano, "Life’s A Dance"; Sunday, October 2, 2 and 7 p.m., Susan Speidel, "The Best Part of My Life." For a complete schedule visit www.odettes.com. Reservations are strongly recommended at 215-862-3000. $15 cover charge, with $10 food and drink minimum.