Go to pop central, then veer to the left

Off the pop mainstream, Cabaret Chanteuse and Tony Starlight's keep the sound sultry and smart


White and Rumbaugh, laughing it up. Kevin Paul Clark Photography

White and Rumbaugh, laughing it up. Kevin Paul Clark Photography

“I like to sing oddball songs, but tonight I thought it’d be fun to sing some standards,” singer-actor Gretchen Rumbaugh said casually in the pre-show glow of a recent Thursday evening.

Then pianist and musical director Darcy White banged an attention-getting chord, and Rumbaugh, suddenly resplendent and bigger than life atop a stage on the port side of the prow-shaped room at Tony Starlight’s Supper Club & Lounge, riffed into Dave Frishberg’s comic and slightly demented “Peel Me a Grape.”

Well, fly me to the moon. It struck me, as Rumbaugh shifted into a suggestive and slightly intimidating low-gear growl, that (a) maybe I’d better peel the damned thing for her; and (b) anyplace where a Frishberg tune’s considered both a standard and not an oddball song must be in an alternate and probably superior universe to our own.

The universe of Cabaret Chanteuse, the evening of song that Rumbaugh’s hosted for the past three years with the talented and congenial White by her side, enters the orbit of our own just once a moon, on the second Thursday of each month. In a town with hundreds of singers but very few cabaret spaces, it’s attracted a glittering parade of torch singers, musical-theater belters and assorted other vocalists, most but not all of them women.

This month’s, a Mother’s Day special on May 9, will feature three “Hot Mamas” (Liz Bacon, Erin Charles, and Wendy Westerwelle, creator of the Sophie Tucker musical “Soph: Last of the Red Hot Mamas”) and one “Hot Papa” (Nick O’Donnell). The list of past performers reads like a who’s-who of Portland’s musical-theater, club, and even operatic stages: Sara Catherine Wheatley, Mary Flower, Duffy Bishop, Angela Niederloh, Susannah Mars, Marilyn Keller, Cherie Price, Steven Nash, Emily Beleele, Rick Lewis, Vin Shambry, and many others.

The appeal of the music, a sort of anti-pop popular music that ranges from the Great American Songbook to jazz and blues and contemporary show tunes, is both intellectual and biological: it can tickle your imagination and get you in the gut. It emphasizes personal style and improvisation, but often also has an element of rediscovery, of sifting through the archaeological sands of popular music to find the stuff that isn’t quite obvious. Unlike most mainstream popular music, it feels like adults at play.

Rumbaugh, a big-bone gal who’s lived a fruitful theatrical life on the outskirts of mainstream town, seems an ideal host for this sort of evening, the kind of embracing personality who can pull together a musical variety show and make it move with the proper combination of intimacy, humor, and quick pacing. One of the original Angry Housewives from Seattle’s premiere production of the long-running cult musical, she’s also put in stints at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, played such outrageous real-life characters as Ann Landers, Leona Helmsley, and Mae West, and starred as the vivacious and slatternly cat in the vastly underrated musical-comedy adaptation of  “Archy & Mehitabel,” Don Marquis’ classic free-verse newspaper tales about a cockroach with the soul of a poet. Portland theater audiences might remember her most recently as Mrs. Lovett, the daffily nefarious peddler of people pies in last fall’s hit Portland Center Stage production of “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”  She moved to Portland half a dozen years ago, and started Cabaret Chanteuse partly to give herself some work. “My mother’s milk was jazz music,” she says. “My father was a jazz musician. He was a bebop player. I mean, for real, when bebop was being invented.”

Holding court at Tony Starlight's. Kevin Paul Clark Photography

Holding court at Tony Starlight’s. Kevin Paul Clark Photography

Tony Starlight’s itself provides part of the Cabaret Chanteuse charm. The club is in an odd little building in an odd part of town, and it can feel like an odd little church, with shrines to the great gods Sinatra and Diamond and various packs of holy rats. It’s a pie wedge at the gateway to Portland’s throwback Hollywood District, squeezed between the rumble of Sandy Boulevard and the roar of a busy freeway interchange, and it looks like Manhattan’s fabled Flatiron Building lopped off at the ankles. Cabaret Chanteuse isn’t the only off-the-American-Idol-track offering here. Tony Starlight’s own shows are like little slicked-back prayers to dreams of Vegas past. Other acts range from piano-bar jazz to big band to supper-club karaoke. “Divaville,” Christa Wessel’s show of jazz and pop oldies on KMHD jazz radio, has gatherings here, too. People who hang out at Tony’s tend to take their quirkiness the old-fashioned way, with a minor chord and maybe a splash of gin. The place doesn’t need to put a bird on it. It just exists, in a slightly altered reality, somewhere between a sepia postcard and a wink.

April’s Cabaret Chanteuse brought together four guest performers, each with her own twist on life in the limelight. Chrissy Kelly Pettit, currently playing Jackie Kennedy in Triangle Productions’ new musical “Ari-Maria,” about Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas, emphasized songs by Portland composers, including Christopher Tabor’s “Little Things” and Michael Allen Harrison’s “You Alone” from his stage adaptation of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Barbara Richardson (“She’s bringing her wine to the stage,” Rumbaugh quipped. “It’s a good sign”) dipped into the musical “Spring Awakening” and brought the house down with a revenge lament about a shallow boyfriend, who’s brushed her off with a callous  “You’re just 15 pounds away from my love, baby.”

Darka Dusty (“I’m in an all-girl group called The Vulva Underground,” she introduced herself) is a onetime Ukrainian pop star who casually and entertainingly shatters American popular-music expectations. Singing and playing her own tune “Cheeky Bird,” she broke into a whistling solo: it was enchanting, like playing the accordion unironically. “Music is my religion, and this is the Church of Get-Down,” she announced huskily. Then she swung into a, well, dark and dusty version of “When I Was Seventeen.” Musical-theater regular Lisamarie Harrison, fresh from a stint in “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,” closed things out with a slightly bawdy and claws-extended purr. “I’m at the age when I should be eating bonbons and getting up at the crack of noon,” she declared airily, then launched into a two-minute singing summary of “Fifty Shades of Gray.” Like most of the evening’s singers, she reveled in the sort of lyrical wordplay that so often distinguishes cabaret from other forms of popular music, delivering a wryly knockout version of the Barbara Cook and Nancy Lamott favorite “Another Mr. Right Left.”

His loss. As Rumbaugh says, “I put on a long black glove and I feel like a chanteuse.” And don’t we all need a long black glove in our lives at least once a month?


This month’s Cabaret Chanteuse is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9, at Tony Starlight’s, 3728 Northeast Sandy Boulevard, Portland. Cover charge is $10, and reservations are recommended: 503-517-8584.


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One Response.

  1. Jason Woodrow says:

    Oh, how you captured the vibe and pulse of Tony’s! I’ve enjoyed a few hundred shows there, and hope to experience as many more as I can.

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