Our region has been without an authentic cabaret – loosely defined as a dining venue that offers live entertainment by small groups, most commonly a singer and pianist – since the closing of the Burgundy Room at the Bellevue-Stratford/Fairmont Hotel in 1986, and the demise of Café Lafitte on Drury Lane nine years before that.
That will change Sept. 18 with the opening of Robert Kotonly and Rory Paul’s the Rrazz Room at the Prince, upstairs at the Prince Theater, and with the November opening in Glenside of Michael Richard Kelly-Cataldi and Dino Kelly-Cataldi’s Dino’s Backstage & the Celebrity Room.
Real cabaret was personified by performers like Bobby Short, Mabel Mercer, and Julie Wilson, who sang sophisticated, ultrahip songs from the great American composers, in chic boîtes on New York City’s Upper East Side. These days, cabaret encompasses everything from doo-wop and jazz to drag shows and Dolly Parton tributes.
The child of live-entertainment-loving parents, Kotonly got the cabaret bug when his folks took him to the Latin Casino in Cherry Hill. In 2000, with business partner Rory Paul, they presented Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna in their show If You Ever Leave Me, I’m Going With You at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, N.J. They opened the first Rrazz Room in 2005 in San Francisco and kept it going until 2013. That year, Kotonly and Paul decided to move back east, home territory for both, and they opened the Rrazz Room of Bucks County in New Hope, as well as another Rrazz Room in Coral Springs, Fla.
Kotonly says “true cabaret, whatever the genre,” is about “the intimacy and the special bond with performer and audience that exists nowhere else. The performer that works best for us is one that is talented, charismatic, and in the moment. Working intimate spaces well is an art form unto itself. It’s unlike performing in large theaters, where the one-on-one aspect gets lost. Mabel Mercer and Julie Wilson were two performers who had all of these qualities and more.”
The Rrazz Room in New Hope is booked through the end of the year. Some of the bookings at the Rrazz Room at the Prince, including Andrea Marcovicci, Linda Lavin, and rare area shows by Tommy Tune and Maureen McGovern, reflect traditional cabaret.
Kotonly says there is more than enough room for two cabarets in the region. “The Rrazz Room audiences are as diverse as our programing,” he says. “Our core audience is, of course, the Broadway/cabaret follower, but so much more. We are in a wonderful city that has a rich musical history.” But does he really want competition? “There can never be too many quality venues,” he says, “that carve out their own niche in the market.”
Michael Richard Kelly-Cataldi and husband/business partner Dino started presenting shows at the Bellevue-Stratford in the early 1980s. They did an international tour with a revue called All Night Strut and later drifted into performing professionally as a singer and storyteller. Intimacy, Michael Richard says, is what drew him to cabaret. “That’s what makes cabaret universal,” he says. “There’s a big difference between performers and singers. Performers draw the audience in, and singers just sing for an audience. We’ll be having performers at Dino’s Backstage.”
Intimacy of another kind will set Dino’s apart. In comparison to the Rrazz Room at the Prince, which had 156 seats, “we have 60 seats, maximum,” Michael Richard says, “and I can only imagine how intimate it will be for customers to enjoy their favorite performer singing no more than 15 feet away.”
Glenside as entertainment mecca? “We are a knock on the wall away from the Keswick Theater,” he says, “so people already come here for entertainment. I know that it’s hard to imagine, but not everyone that loves live music lives in Center City.”
Will these venues survive? Stay tuned. One thing is certain: For these men, life is indeed a cabaret.
Bruce Klauber is the author of “Gene Krupa,” a producer of Warner’s “Jazz Legends” DVD series, and a working jazz musician.
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