July 15, 2010 | by David J. Hoffman
Summer’s a cabaret

It’s summer in the city and what better way to escape the heat and humidity than cabaret?

So Matthew Gardiner, gay resident director at Signature Theatre — the 2009 Tony Award-winning regional theater in Shirlington Village — turns to cabaret, a “Sizzlin’ Summer Cabaret,” in fact, as he curates the best of Broadway, rock, jazz, folk and more. And all tickets are only $20.

“Cabaret to me is a way of sharing music and personal experiences with the audience, it’s a performer’s way of sharing himself or herself, a way to add a personal touch to their singing and their musicality,” says Gardiner.

For performers, he says, “in the theater they’re playing characters on stage, it’s not themselves, but in cabaret, it’s a way to expose themselves and express themselves through music.” And “each cabaret” — Gardiner is staging a total of 17 through July 24 — “is different,” he says, “it can be so many things, it can be jazz, it can be rock, or musical theater.” He adds, “it’s so personal to me … it can never be old hat to me at all.”

At tonight’s cabaret (9:30 p.m. Friday, July 16), gay singer Will Gartshore performs, following a 7:30 performance of “Ain’t Got No: a Rock/Pop Cabaret.” Gartshore, a popular D.C.-based singer whose day job is as an environmental activist on climate change issues, first sang cabaret in 2003, but was afraid at first of the personal self-exposure the medium entails.

“But you get over the fear,” Gartshore said in a recent Blade interview. “Basically you tell stories through good songs, there’s something great and simple about it that I’ve grown to love.” Gartshore’s set at 9:30 p.m. Friday will, like all the cabarets, last just an hour, and people will sit cabaret-style at tables able to buy food and drink from the lobby canteen. Cool drinks and hot music, the perfect tonic for the doggiest of D.C. summer days.

“It’s primarily me and a piano,” says Gartshore, “plus a couple of cameos, several of my ‘leading ladies,’” of which he has quite a few from recent starring roles such as in Signature’s “Showboat” as well as “My Fair Lady” and many others there. “It’s fun to have someone to play with when you’re out there alone for an hour in the spotlight, to be out there without the veneer of the character, just me.” For material, Gartshore is casting farther back in time than usual for him, “a bit older material, more classic show tunes from the earlier and mid-20th century — from the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, Cole Porter, the Gershwin brothers, Rogers and Hart — this was such good song writing!”

“As I get a little older as well,” he confides, “I come back to the classics, to good old classic songs,” but he also intends to blend in “alongside a healthy dose of Stephen Sondheim,” always a Signature surefire touch. Gartshore calls Sondheim “a modern classic,” and recalls that “I sang for him at his 70th birthday in 2000 at the Library of Congress,” remembering it as “still one of the highlights of my career.”

Gartshore, winner of two Helen Hayes awards for Best Actor and an eight-time nominee, is joined by a raft of other top cabaret talents at the Signature series, including Stephen Gregory Smith (who’s gay) joined by Karissa Swanigan at 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 20. Other performers in the series include D.C.-area local talents such as Sandy Bainum singing Dorothy Parker at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 21; and Natascia Dia, with Michael Pemberton at 8 p.m. on Thursday, July 22.

Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, popular New York City cabaret artists, perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 23, and Bob McDonald does so at 9:30 that night. Pop cabaret artist from New York City Colleen McHigh performs the songs of Judy Garland at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 24 and the series ends that night at 9:30 p.m. with a return engagement of Natascia Diaz.

Also on stage at Signature on Saturday, July 17, is its all-day, free “open house” sponsored by Target — a full day beginning at 11:45 a.m. both indoors and spilling outside onto the plaza where performances on a stage include the famous garage band “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and highlights also from Signature’s new season featuring songs from the musicals “Chess” and “Sunset Boulevard” and the cabaret of “Side By Side with Sondheim.” Signature’s artistic director, Eric Schaefer, also leads a master class for pre-selected students on acting a song for auditions, featuring a Q&A session for the audience afterwards.

The day of spectacular mini-offerings closes at 8:30 on the Plaza Stage with a grand finale special concert with Broadway and D.C. talents celebrating the music of Broadway and Signature Theatre. The concert emcee is Clinton Kelly, host of TLC’s “What Not to Wear.” Kelly will also join a panel of judges to select the “Signature Idol” — a sing-off from the 10 best new solo singers in the D.C. region competing on stage.

Other judges include Schaefer and Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks. The competition begins in the 276-seat MAX Theatre at 3:45 p.m. and the winner will sing in the 8 p.m. finale on the Plaza Stage.

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