On the surface, Los Angeles seems like a prime location for a stellar night of celebrity-driven cabaret, as the city is a mecca of working and often multi-talented stars, but as the boys of UPRIGHT Cabaret discovered, looks can be deceiving.
Sitting in a nondescript café in West Hollywood, just a block from La Boheme Restaurant, where UPRIGHT performs, producer Chris Isaacson looked back over the evolution of the monthly show, from its beginnings at Mark's Restaurant to the now elegant locale on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Having recently celebrated their two-year anniversary, Isaacson, along with co-producer Shane Scheel and music director Trapper Felides, took a journey down memory lane, revealing the high and low points of their reinventing cabaret in L.A., especially when the last time "great" and "cabaret" were synonymous in this town, Sinatra was playing the Mocambo Club.
Although, comparing UPRIGHT to the smoke-filled supper clubs of the '40s and '50s is precisely the stereotype the three impresarios have been tirelessly trying to avoid.
"We knew we had to do something a little different because L.A. is a different audience than a typical crowd in the New York piano bars," said Scheel. "So we had to be innovative in getting a different kind of crowd there. When you go to an UPRIGHT show, you do get a really young, hip and vibrant crowd there. We were trying to fight that piano bar reputation and make it a cool L.A. thing to do."
So what is UPRIGHT Cabaret if not a watering hole for the aging hipsters still hanging onto the idea of Frank and Dino crooning songs from the turn of the century? With some of today's hottest stars, ranging from Tracie Thoms ("RENT") and Michael Urie ("Ugly Betty") to Sean McDermott (Miss Saigon) and Eden Espinosa (Wicked), routinely jumping up on stage, the atmosphere can only be described as fresh and exciting in a town that thrives on an often-superficial atmosphere.
"Upright is a place where actor-singers can feel that joy of performing songs they love in the most loving and supportive setting imaginable," said Thoms. "It feeds the soul in an often soul-less place for a theatre actor."
Julie Reiber, who is currently in the L.A. production of Wicked, enjoys singing at UPRIGHT so much that she manages to make a mad dash from the nearby Pantages Theatre once the curtain drops to squeeze into the monthly show. "I tell friends that it's a cabaret of L.A. and New York talent. Lots of musical theatre people, but a lot of TV personalities as well," she said. "I actually never got to see an entire show because Wicked isn't out until 11, so I had to come after work each time I performed."
Sitting in La Boheme's dimly lit restaurant, which until UPRIGHT came along was typically thought of as a romantic gem nestled in the middle of the city, as the glamorous crystal chandeliers twinkle their magic throughout the cavernous setting, a rush of something exciting is firmly established. With such a setup, and the bountiful talent lined up every month, it is no wonder that nearly each show attracts sold-out crowds.
What started out as a packed little evening at Mark's Restaurant on April 9, 2005, mainly consisting of friends and family singing, albeit a few famous friends, has matured into a force to be reckoned with in and around the L.A. area in terms of evening entertainment.
"It has been a lot of hard work but we loved it and stuck to it. At Mark's, the show gained in popularity that we went from one night to two nights then the whole weekend," said Isaacson. "You just couldn't get seats because it was sold out every night. So we needed a place that was bigger and provided more of a performance kind of atmosphere… About five or six months into the show, Shane (Scheel) was walking home from Mark's and saw La Boheme. He came back to the house and said we have to move the show there."
Isaacson and Scheel quickly discovered that securing such an ideal location would not be the easiest of tasks. Initially La Boheme questioned their request to transfer UPRIGHT to the restaurant, according to Isaacson. It was not until they courted General Manager Brian O'Conner with press packages and personal invites to the original show, over a period of nine months, that he finally gave in and welcomed the cabaret into his establishment.
Yet, courting a new location was not the only obstacle the two producers had to overcome along the way of establishing their show as a must-see event. Finding the perfect music director involved paying for cross-country flights, on a monthly basis, for Felides as he considered whether or not to transplant himself from his New York digs to the west coast.
"They hadn't had a ton of luck with their music director the first month, so I started flying out once a month to help them out," said Felides with a snarky swagger. "As things started progressing no one knew where I was at any time because I was out here half the time and in New York half the time. I started losing work on both coasts so I decided to come out and do the L.A. thing."
After attending Ithaca College in New York where he studied music, Felides actually began his career in L.A., though he was not won over by the experience. "I was doing this kind of Cirque de Soleil club show, and it was with dancers and lesser singers who looked hot in skimpy clothing, but it didn't go over too well" joked Felides.
During the nine months spent wooing O'Conner, Isaacson and Scheel arranged for Felides to fly out each month for a full year before he finally chose to bid New York adieu and join the UPRIGHT gang permanently.
With a strong three-man team behind the scenes, though Felides plays piano for a majority of the performances, the once casual show has seen nearly 200 performers on its stage, and many of the well-known singers now come to the producers asking to be a part of the fun.
"When we first started, of course no one would give us a chance, thinking we were just a little cabaret show put on by three young guys," said Isaacson. "It was our friends and friends-of-friends that were performing. Performers like Elizabeth Brackenbury, Leslie Odom Jr. and Chad Kimball have all been with us since the start. The big stars have come out of the woodwork as the show has progressed. Now you never know who will be in the audience. Diahann Carroll,Michael Mayer, Rupert Holmes,Sharon Lawrence, Neil Patrick Harris, Anthony Rapp, and Richard Jay-Alexander have all shared evenings with us."
"There was nobody on the first couple of months who had a Broadway credit," adds Felides. "Now I have to tell people with three Broadway credits that we have no room on a particular show. It can be very frustrating.' Back at Mark's it felt like a party, very chill, but it's now more streamlined and formal, as people tend to get dressed up and really become excited about the night."
That is not to say UPRIGHT is solely a celebrity-driven venue, as the show prides itself on mixing both the known and undiscovered talent that is floating around the vast land of L.A. One recent addition to the lineup is singer-songwriter Audra Mae (who happens to be related to the famed Judy Garland) who has been a powerhouse performer, often earning enough accolades to hop up on stage for a few encores throughout the night.
"The great thing about our show is that the girl who just got off the bus from Kansas is working the same venue as Tracie Thoms, Busy Philipps or Zooey Deschanel," said Scheel. "We are able to go discover new talent as well as showcase Broadway talent. It's a little bit of everything and something for everyone. L.A. is just so rich with so many brilliantly talented people, so we never have trouble finding them."
And many times, those less familiar faces, such as Bree Bruns and Dawn Cherie Scheel, brighten up the night with such graceful ease, it is no wonder the audience has been known to draw out some entertainment power players and creative types.
Recently in attendance was Avenue Q's Tony Award winning co-creator Jeff Marx, who was amused as a few of his tunes worked their way into the evening's setlist. "They knew I was coming, so they had three people sing songs from Avenue Q, which was kind of embarrassing, especially because the actors were scared once they saw me sitting there," he said laughingly.
After two successful years, Isaacson and Scheel are far from content, with aspirations of growing into a weekly show and even shopping a potential reality television series based on their experiences, all on the horizon. They are slowly popping up in and around the L.A. entertainment scene, with their recently sponsoring of the "Dreamgirls" DVD release party, providing entertainment for countless charitable events including The Trevor Project, Aids Project Los Angeles, and Outfest Legacy Project to name a few, and taking a stripped down version of the cabaret show to Palm Springs, where they are considering setting up a monthly event at the Viceroy Hotel.
"We have been embraced by the theatre community here and by West Hollywood as well," said Isaacson. "We are also starting to be embraced by the bigger part of Los Angeles, but if we could become 'the' novelty show to go see when you come to Los Angeles, that would be amazing."
Though it might sound like a bunch of name-dropping, not many people would have the opportunity to see such an eclectic group of star powered singers in an intimate and casual environment as can be experienced at UPRIGHT Cabaret every month.
And as the whole gang blew out the candles on their anniversary cake last month, Isaacson came up with a few more wishes for the show. "I would love to have cabaret greats like Ann Hampton Callaway and Susan Egan grace the UPRIGHT Stage, as well as Sam Harris, who got his start doing cabaret clubs here in Los Angeles. It's a fat chance but it would be really fun if Bette Midler dropped in and sang 'Hello in There' by John Prine with Barry Manilow on the keys and Bruce Vilanch writing our dialogue. That would be really amazing...and perhaps not too fat of a chance."
Note from UPRIGHT's Producers: Birthday? Anniversary? From Out-of-Town? Let us know that you are coming to the show and we will give you a shout-out from the stage on the night you visit UPRIGHT Cabaret! Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scheduled performance dates of UPRIGHT Cabaret are at 10 p.m. on May 11, June 8 (Tribute to Judy Garland) and 22, July 13 and 27, August 10 and 24, September 7 and 21, October 12 and 26, November 9 and December 7 (Night Divine – The Christmas Show). For more information and selected audio and video clips, visit www.myspace.com/uprightcabaret or www.uprightcabaret.com. La Boheme is located at 8400 Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. For table reservations, call 323-848-2360.