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Life is a cabaret, and your table is waiting

The cabaret of the musical "Cabaret" is history. But the cabaret spirit lives.

It lives in the kind of venue where the lights are low. A grown-up environment where drinks are served. Where you sit at tables -- and, if it's crowded, might be sharing your table with strangers. Hence the phrase cabaret seating.

And where the entertainment is the focus of the night.

At Desiderio's Dinner Theatre, held at Bobby J's Italian American Grille in Cheektowaga, the wait staff makes one more round before the curtain rises, to make sure patrons have everything they need. Then Jay Desiderio greets the house.

"I give a short talk before the show, and ask people, 'Please silence your phones.' I don't want anyone doing a Patti LuPone on the audience," he laughed. "Once the show starts, the lights go up on stage, and it transforms the room."

This return to an earlier form of entertainment could be seen as an escape from the jangly new world when texts, calls and tweets are always coming in. And with people increasingly used to virtual connections, it's very intimate.

Randy Kramer and Theresa Quinn, proprietors of MusicalFare Theatre, wanted that kind of connection when they transformed their lobby in 2014 into a cabaret space, with tables, a bar and a bandstand.

Six shows a year take place in the adjoining theater space. But in the month or so between production, cabaret shows fill in. It might be a piano man playing a tribute to Elton John. It could be a big band or a jazz combo, ideally with a singer or two. It could be a combination of comedy and song.

Kramer and Quinn like to team up on two-piano evenings.

"I hear people talk, hear them talk about what they like and don't. People are close enough so you can feel them," Quinn said. "With theater, you can never break that fourth wall and not have it become chaos," she said. "Sometimes you can't even do that in a bar gig, because you are dealing with the din of the room. But you can do that in cabaret."

DeeAnn DiMeo Tompkins has made a name for herself singing Top 40 with the legendary party band Joyryde. But she has branched out into jazz and other quieter genres, singing in a cabaret setting.

Recently she performed at the intimate jazz venue Pausa Art House, singing songs sung by Billie Holiday, as well as originals in the same spirit. The house is tiny, and DiMeo Tompkins thrives on the closeness with her audience.

"Joyryde is fun. It's pop music, and we make people happy, and I love watching them smile. Having them come up and say how much fun they had, that's beautiful," she said. "But to pour out your soul in Billie Holiday songs, in Pausa, an intimate space, that is something I love."

The Holiday songs she sang included "Lover Man, Where Can You Be?" and "Fine and Mellow," a lovelorn blues song written by Holiday. "Her lyrics are so painful," DiMeo Tompkins reflected.

Songs like that, she added, resonate in a small setting.

"The connection is so intimate. You're definitely touching people. They're touching you. They help me, I help them. The other night a woman came up to me. I did not know her. She was alone. I could feel something was going on. She came up to me at the end of the night, and she said, 'You have no idea, I had the worst day ever. You helped me get through this day, and I am so grateful to you.'

"I asked her, 'Are you going to be OK'? She said, 'I'll be OK.' I said, 'I'm sorry about whatever you're going through. I'm glad I can help.'"

She spoke from the heart.

"I get those stories all the time," she said. "Music is such a universal language. It's such a healing. That's the reason I keep singing. You connect with other people. While I'm on the planet, this is what I need to do -- Joyryde, blues, and jazz."

DiMeo Tompkins' recent CD embraces a variety of genres and so do her small shows. She might include a rock song she has reworked into an intimate setting. "We have an old Michael Jackson song, 'I Want You Back.' We do 'Some Kind of Wonderful,' " she said.

The experimental nature of an intimate venue enabled Desiderio to dream up his dinner theater.

"I got my theater degree at SUNY Fredonia. I thought I might want to teach, or go into educational theater, which is very different from commercial theater," he said.  "We have a family restaurant. I asked my dad, 'Do you mind if I put in a stage, and put on a show?' He was very supportive.

"I mixed my theater degree with my restaurant training, and that's how my dinner theater was born. I haven't looked back."

Desiderio's Dinner Theatre opened its production of "Jitters," a backstage comedy by David French and directed by Jay Desiderio. It will run Thursday, Saturday and Sunday through April 15. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Desiderio directs and produces most of his own shows, and he makes sure to mix it up.

"My greatest joy is, people who don't normally go to the theater say, I can come for dinner. And I can get them hooked. I feel proud of that. A lot of people will say, 'well, I just like the comedies.' It's not like that. They like the love stories. They love the courtroom dramas. One of my biggest hits was 'Nuts,' a big courtroom drama."

Currently, Desiderio is presenting "Jitters," a bittersweet comedy about what goes on backstage in a drama production. A lot of thought went into the choice.

"The hardest part of directing is choosing the play," Desiderio reflected. He once took a chance on "Extremities," a harrowing drama. "It had some graphic language, and a pretty intense assault scene at the beginning. I warned people about it, and they didn't decline. That was a very powerful piece."

Backstage 'Jitters' takes center stage at Desiderio's

He has taken chances from the start.

"The first play we did was 'Biloxi Blues,' Neil Simon's play about his days in the army. The language can be salty. It was a smash hit. Theater doesn't exist if you don't have an audience. Our patrons are very loyal, and I'm thankful."

In a cabaret setting, proprietors get a quick sense of people's reactions. Quinn, at MusicalFare, loved how the audience embraced an evening of Christmas songs from theater -- some of them downright bitter. Another show centered on great songs from musicals either bad or rather obscure. "Hey Now," from "The Pajama Game," was one example.

MusicalFare Executive and Artistic Director Randy Kramer and his wife Theresa Quinn, the Musical Director, perform "A Guy, A Girl, A Piano" where both simultaneously play the same piano while playing informal pop and musical theater number. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"We'll find ourselves sitting around the bar after the show, asking each other, 'What do you want to do next?' " she laughed.

"It's been a great ice breaker. I've learned more of the subscribers' names, and sometimes things they have said have become the seeds of ideas for the next programming. It's been really fun."

Like Desiderio and DiMeo Tompkins, Quinn enjoys being able to play it by ear.

"Usually I've sat in a pit. This has been a kick in the butt for me to get my head out of the music, and connect with folks. We're having so much fun trying to think of the next thing.

"I wish I knew how it was going to turn out."

Head to a cabaret

Here are five Buffalo venues that, at least on certain evenings, bring back the spirit of cabaret.

California Road Music Hall, located in California Road Studios (3646 California Road, Orchard Park, 662-0536) is the newest place on our list. Just a few months old, it has covered tables, beer and wine, table service and seating for 150. This spring it is hosting to such esteemed local artists as Bobby Militello, Phil Sims, Maria Sebastian and Michael Civisca.

Coming up: At 2 p.m. April 8, A Miles Davis Project With Bobby Militello and at 7 p.m. April 14, Tom Makar tribute to David Bowie.

The Historic Colored Musicians Club (145 Broadway). The oldest place on our list. In addition to tables, dim lighting, strong drinks and a piano, it has the thrill that comes from being in the only place on this list that has historic cred. To think that you are where Ella sang and Count Basie played-- priceless.

Coming up: The Carol McLaughlin Big Band at 8 p.m. Thursdays; the George Scott Big Band at 7 p.m. Mondays; and the weekly jam session, featuring various musicians, at 6 p.m. Sundays.

Desiderio's Dinner Theatre (located in Bobby J's Italian-American Grille, 204 Como Park Blvd., 395-3207) is presenting "Jitters," a comedy about what goes on backstage in a drama production. Continuing: The play, by David French, runs Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays through April 15.

The Premier Cabaret @ MusicalFare Theatre (4380 Main St. on the Daemen College campus, 839-8540) features entertainment on evenings between larger productions. Coming up: Phil Sims and the Cabaret Big Band, 8 p.m. March 23 and Mark Finsinger Quintet Plays the Chet Baker Songbook, 2 p.m. March 25.

Pausa Art House (19 Wadsworth St. 697-9075). An intimate space in a historic Allentown house, offering a variety of entertainment. Arrive there early because it can get crowded. Coming up: The Banjo Juice Band plays 1920s blues, jazz and swing at 8 p.m. March 9 and an evening of jazz features saxophonists David Bixler and Doug Stone at 8 p.m. March 10.

Email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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