Come to the Cabaret 

A new Barksdale series showcases local talent.

click to enlarge art40_theater_debra_wagoner_100.jpg

Frank Sinatra sang his songs. Ella Fitzgerald devoted a whole album to his music. Even "American Idol" runner-up Katharine McPhee owes a slice of her fame to him. And yet few people recognize the name of 1930s-era songsmith Harold Arlen, the man who wrote "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and hundreds of other unforgettable tunes.

The Barksdale Theatre will take a step toward rectifying that situation with a special production called "The World on a String: Debra Wagoner Sings the Songs of Harold Arlen." The show is the first offering in the company's new Starlight Cabaret Series, specialized performances featuring local stage veterans belting out some of the best songs ever written. "We see these shows as a chance for Richmond theater artists to strut their stuff," series director Chase Kniffen says.

Performances take place on the small Nightclub Stage upstairs at the Barksdale's Willow Lawn location. "It's a more intimate setting," says Kniffen, with cabaret tables and access to a full bar, coffee and dessert services. "It allows for a more personal connection between the singer and the audience."

The Barksdale is launching the Cabaret Series as a follow-up to a tremendously successful "Broadway Holiday Cabaret" put on during last year's holiday season. "Regional theaters across the country are doing these kinds of shows now," Kniffen says, because they make use of facilities on off nights, and they help promote main stage productions. Next up in the series will be a holiday-themed show.

Wagoner was the natural choice to sing Arlen's songs, since she has played Dorothy in many productions of "The Wizard of Oz," which features what is arguably Arlen's most famous score. "What's so unique about him is the variety in his songs," Wagoner says, citing examples as varied as the spiritual "Get Happy" to torchy, bluesy numbers like "Stormy Weather." "Singers just love his music." And the Barksdale's banking on audiences loving it too. S

"The World on a String" has performances Oct. 7 at 11 p.m. and Oct. 9-10 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25. Call 282-2620 for details.

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