Six years ago, Chicagoans began flocking to a remarkable series of performances spotlighting that most fragile of art forms: cabaret.
Though typically staged in tiny rooms before small but adoring audiences, this time cabaret unfolded on the grand stage of Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place (now known as the Broadway Playhouse), on East Chestnut Street. Most of the shows on the "Musical Mondays on the Magnificent Miles" series sold out and none moved less than 400 tickets, as dozens of Chicago's best performers celebrated the Great American Songbook from early 2008 to late 2009.
Unfortunately, the series came to an unexpected close as Drury Lane was being sold, with "Musical Mondays" never finding a new home – until now.
A new edition of "Musical Mondays" will launch next week at Victory Gardens Theater, important news for anyone who values sophisticated, jazz-tinged interpretations of hyper-literate songwriting. But what took so long?
"It's true that since we stopped doing it, I can't tell you how many people have said to us, 'Are you ever going to do that series again?'" says Joan Curto, a prominent Chicago cabaret artist and president of the non-profit Chicago Cabaret Professionals, which created the series.
"We always wanted to … but there were a lot of logistics involved in doing this again. Where could we do this? Where did it make sense?
"We had a retreat last year in August with the CCP board … and one of our initiatives was we wanted to bring 'Musical Mondays' back. We wanted to make sure cabaret has a presence in Chicago."
The challenge was finding a venue as accommodating and as well situated as Drury Lane was, a formidable task. Located just steps from the Magnificent Mile, Drury Lane attracted mostly neighborhood residents but also cabaret aficionados from further afield, says Curto.
So Curto drew up a proposal and began shopping the series to various venues, finding an eager taker in Victory Gardens, on North Lincoln Avenue.
"When Joan came to us and talked about what this would be, it was very different from anything we would do," says Chris Mannelli, managing director of Victory Gardens. "But it's a great way to add to the kind of performing arts we have in the building.
"It's certainly nice to have a musical aspect in the building. … Our space is terrific for music."
How well Victory Gardens suits the intimate art of cabaret remains to be heard, but at 259 seats its main auditorium is significantly smaller than Drury Lane was. That the theater sits in a densely populated neighborhood thick with culture, dining and nightlife can only help.
"I like the location because it's not too far from Park West, where we have our (CCP) gala every year," says Curto. "We know a lot of our audience is in the neighborhood or in close proximity, so it's easy for people to get to. … If we went too far north, we know a lot of our audience might not travel that far.
"And (Victory Gardens) has allowed us to participate in their audience as well. … Hopefully we can bring in some of their patrons to see something maybe they haven't seen before."
Monday night's performance will kick off a four-concert series, two on a bare stage, two on sets that will be up for Victory Gardens theatrical productions. Each performance will visit a particular theme, and each cast will be different, reflecting the breadth and depth of Chicago cabaret talent.
Curto is quick to acknowledge that, for the most part, the cabaret audience has leaned toward older listeners. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that every art form needs a future. To begin to address that issue, each installment of "Musical Mondays" will include one student performer, surely a savvy way to encourage young talent and draw young listeners. For Monday's opening, the student will be Ryan Stajmiger singing music of Jason Robert Brown.
He'll share the marquee with several of Chicago's most accomplished cabaret artists, including Curto, Jen Chada, David Edelfelt, Carla Gordon and Denise Tomasello. The show, "Legends of Broadway," will address music of noteworthy singers and composers.
In coming months, "Musical Mondays" will present "Feelin' Groovy: Songs of a New Generation," reviving tunes of the 1960s and '70s, especially those originating from the Brill Building in New York; "Words and Music," featuring repertoire by artists who wrote both; and "The British Are Coming to Broadway," with music by composers from the other side of the pond.
If the performances attract audiences, says Curto, she hopes that in the next season "we can expand and do additional shows. We'd like to continue this series for a long time, then look for other ideas we can incorporate into 'Musical Mondays.' … Maybe we'll bring in guest performers.
"We'd like to keep it going so that people know that cabaret in Chicago is available on a regular basis. It's at Davenport's every night, but not only at Davenport's," adds Curto, referring to the indispensable cabaret on North Milwaukee Avenue.
"Our goal is to be a permanent part of the cultural landscape in Chicago, just like dance and jazz and blues and all the other genres. We want to make sure that we're there too."
"Musical Mondays" could go a long way toward achieving that goal, especially if it can last longer than it did at Drury Lane.
The short-lived but unmistakable success of that venture suggested that Chicagoans are hungry to hear this kind of music-making. Now we have a chance to pick up where we left off.
Chicago Cabaret Professionals' "Legends of Broadway" show kicks off the "Musical Mondays" series at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.; tickets are $30 for individual shows, $100 for the four-show series. Free parking is available at 2316 N. Lincoln Ave. The series continues with "Feelin' Groovy: Songs of a New Generation," Sept. 22; "Words and Music," Jan. 12, 2015; and "The British are Coming to Broadway," April 27. Phone 773-871-3000 or visit victorygardens.org.
Made in Chicago launches
The annual Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series opens with former Chicago singer Milton Suggs performing "The Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar," 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Pritzker Pavilion of Millennium Park, near Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue; admission is free; 312-742-1168 or millenniumpark.org.