In this era of belt-tightening for arts groups, many community theaters are afraid to take chances.
But Casa Mañana, rather than shrinking back, is expanding. The theater is opening a new space within its legendary geodesic dome. The Reid Cabaret Theatre, named for the family of donors who made it possible, will offer intimate musical entertainment in a nightclub-like space.
And early indications are that the theater has made a safe bet. The new venue’s first series of shows, four performances by Broadway performer Michael Cunio on Feb. 8-10, have already sold out.
“These kind of gigs are the most fun that I get to have. When you are doing a big theater show or a Broadway gig, there are certain things that have to be the same night after night. But [in a cabaret setting], I can do whatever I want and sing whatever I want,” said Cunio, who was in the cast of the Broadway production of “Hairspray” for more than three years, and is also known for his work in productions of “Jersey Boys” and in multiple PBS music specials. “My favorite place to be is in front of a band and performing live. It’s like we’re having a dinner party, but instead of dinner, we’re serving drinks.”
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Casa Mañana president and executive producer Wally Jones said he was motivated to open the new space by the rise in popularity of cabaret performances in other markets, especially New York.
“It was 54 Below,” said Jones, identifying one of several Big Apple clubs that has had recent success with cabaret-style presentations. “We have been talking about the cabaret space for a year. Once we had an act, we sent out three e-blasts and sold out all four shows.”
Jones said he plans to bring in three more artists for performances this year in April, September and November or December. And he also hopes that some local musical theater talent will take advantage of the new space.
“We have told some of our actors that, if you have a show or always wanted to have a cabaret show, get a couple of your friends together and come down here. We’ll let you use the space for free. We’ll split the gate and we’ll take the bar,” said Jones. “That will give them an opportunity to have their own show. We would love to have some of the local actors come in and use our space.”
The new space, which occupies a part of the theater that was formerly used for administrative offices, is extremely cozy.
It can accommodate an audience of 70 at its tables and has its own bar. In the daylight, the room wins no awards for aesthetics. Its basic color scheme is black and, aside from an impressive, modern chandelier and a few musician portraits, it is unadorned. But, because the purpose of the room is to replicate the feel of a nightclub, its look is likely to work when the lights are low.
The real question mark is how will the room sound? And Cunio, who performs a wide range of material, appears to be an excellent choice to test those waters.
“I do ‘The Great American Radio Songbook,’” said Cunio, distinguishing what he does from more typical cabaret acts that rely on the Great American Songbook — the standards and show tunes that have been the mainstay of stage music for decades.
The artists Cunio most likes to cover are Etta James and James Brown. But he can also visit the hits of the Police, Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith.
“I especially enjoy the golden age of soul music, from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s. But I also enjoy doing R&B and a little bit of rock ’n’ roll — a grittier, more grown-up style of music,” said Cunio, who will be backed by a quartet featuring a sax and a rhythm section.
In addition to doing some singing on his visit here, the New York-based Cunio is planning to get back into the saddle again.
“I love to ride horses. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and my uncle had a ranch. So I plan to get in a little horseback riding and eat some barbeque while I am there,” said Cunio.
And because of the timing of Cunio’s visit (less than a week after the conclusion of the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, which can leave a lingering whiff of the 35,000-plus animals that have recently occupied its grounds), it is fortunate that Cunio has a little experience with the cowboy life.
“For me, a little bit of manure is not a bad smell,” he said, sounding more like a Texan than a New Yorker.