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Thursday, August 9, 2007

'Summer Spotlight Cabaret at the Lyric'

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The name rang a bell and then some. And yet I was stunned that, after living in New Orleans for eight years, I’d never officially met Brandt Blocker, an award-winning musical-theater director in a city that loves the genre. Until now. Turns out Blocker’s been living in Atlanta the past three months, taking over as the artistic and general manager for Atlanta Lyric Theatre.

At the tail end of a lengthy chat to catch up on things New Orleans post-Katrina and Atlanta post-relocation, Blocker invited me to come check out the group’s “Summer Spotlight Cabaret at the Lyric” — a weekly series produced by Susan Atkinson of free (with suggested donations) performances Thursdays at 8 p.m. at the Byers Studio Theatre (see map) to provide a break for the summer heat and keep interest alive until the upcoming fall season.

Considering it offered a chance to kill two birds with one stone — meet someone I should’ve met eight years ago, and take a dip in the waters of Atlanta musical theater — I accepted.

For those familiar with the space, brace yourself for a rehab job that includes increased capacity to 125, new seating and a fresh coat of black paint for a more intimate mood. Plus a whole lot more, making folks recall the days of the late Libby's, the only true cabaret nightclub in Atlanta.

Cabaret’s a curious theatrical animal. On the one hand, it’s incredibly accessible for the everyday culture vulture, in that it offers a buffet of songs without the commitment to a protracted singular production. On the other hand, it can sometimes feel like a series of little, forced emotional moments as performers sing songs barely in context with anything. And for a first-time observer of such productions, it can often feel like one big inside joke, the question being whether you care if you don’t get it or not.

On last night’s visit, I could tell everyone knew everyone, fans and performers alike. The regular cast — vocalists Charlie Bradshaw, Jennifer Hendrickson, Kathleen McCook, Joe Swaney and pianist Paul Tate, along with guests Kristy Krabe and Matthew Carter) could elicit applause and laughter almost before doing or saying anything to the sold-out, standing-room-only group theater. Familiarity breeds warmth at these performances, even if you’re not initially in on the joke, because of that un-self-conscious, “let’s put on a show!” ebullience that fills the room.

And if the song list is any indication, Blocker’s out to revitalize Atlanta Lyric, which I’d heard for years had produced very pleasing if sometimes safe musical offerings to the Atlanta theater scene. Now, the word “edgy” is a tricky word to use in musical theater. “Edgy” for the hipper set could mean anything from Cabaret to Hedwig and the Angry Inch. For others, it could mean Kiss of the Spiderwoman, one of a handful of Kander & Ebb numbers delivered with brio on a recent Thursday evening. Swaney, all chiseled jaw and muscled guns, delivered the title tune from Spiderwoman flamed out in red satin shirt against a glowing crimson backdrop to kick off the second act with an envious vibrato lilt. The crowd, already hooked, practically surrendered right there.

And so the night went, a nice balance of the familiar and not-so-familiar, the crowd eating up just about every moment.

Tonight, the series continues with performances by Danny Cook, Ben Neill, Laura Floyd and Maura Carey, with BJ Brown on piano. No matter how you slice it, it might just be a cool thing to do.

The series concludes Aug. 30; Atlanta Lyric's fall season begins Sept. 30 with Little Shop of Horrors.

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