The Venice Theatre's first Summer Cabaret Festival is a time for experimentation and testing the waters for many of the performers appearing for the first time in this intimate format.
The five-week festival features 12 different acts in a scattered schedule through Aug. 25. On July 27, recent "Side Show" costars Danae DeShazer and Alana Opie, who played conjoined twins in the Players Theatre production, reunited for the appropriately titled "Sisterly Love." They're following in the footsteps, to a degree, of the musical's original stars Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, who have teamed up for a couple of concert productions and recordings since that cult favorite show opened on Broadway.
The two women have different styles -- DeShazer is brassy and bubbly while Opie is more serious with a dry sense of humor -- that combine nicely when they're singing duets. In this two-act concert they perform a few songs together and split up for some funny and poignant solo numbers that help to give the audience a sense of who they are, who they think they are as artists. They also have worked well together to bring a good flow and emotional range.
Opie takes on some of the funnier songs, including the "Alto's Lament," in which she bemoans the fact that she's always singing some sort of off-melody harmony, and a woman's ode to her potential relationship with the "Oh Henry Bar" she sees in a vending machine. "I know you're a confection, but I feel a connection," she sings. And she finds a slightly more heightened sense of humor in "Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride," from "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," about a woman who has a closet full of the ugliest bridesmaid's dresses ever designed
Opie also knows how to bring some tenderness to her singing with a sweet version of "Hold On" from "The Secret Garden," dedicated to a friend's young daughter who is being treated for Stage 3 Neuroblastoma.
DeShazer, on the other hand, presents herself as something of a flirt who is simultaneously unlucky in love, first heard in Andrew Lippa's "Life of the Party," which pushes her vocally, and Frank Wildhorn's more sultry and flamboyant "Bring on the Men," which is livelier and fare more successful. But there's never a doubt she has the attitude, personality and acting skills to pull them off. (UPDATE: The theater announced that DeShazer lost her voice after the first show, which would explain the sense of vocal strain Saturday night, and the second performance, originally scheduled for July 28 would be rescheduled for 8p.m. Aug. 18.)
There is no strain, only honest emotion, in her beautiful rendition of Adam Gwon's "I'll Be Here," about a woman who falls in love with a man who later dies in the World Trade Center attacks. She gives this gentle song the right pacing while conveying her character's sense of discovering love in an unexpected way.
The show, however, is at its best when they're singing together, whether duets from "Side Show" like "I Will Never Leave You" and "Who Will Love Me as I Am," or a healthy assortment of Stephen Schwartz songs. They include a lovely version of "For Good" from "Wicked," a jazzy "Two's Company" from "The Magic Show" and a sweet duet arrangement of "Meadowlark" from "The Baker's Wife," which is usually performed as a solo.
The singers are well accompanied by pianist Bobby Brader and drummer John Januszewski, who provide support without overwhelming the women, but with their big voices, that would be hard.
The Pinkerton Theatre has been turned into Pinky's Cabaret for the festival, with small cocktail tables placed between chairs arranged in angled rows in front of the platform stage. It's a comfortable setting for the audience who are coming out to see area actors and singers learn a new way to perform and communicate.
The Venice Theatre's Summer Cabaret Festival continues through Aug. 25. Tickets are $15, with subscriptions available. For more information; 488-1115; venicestage.com