Come together, right now, over Z

It’s a muggy June evening inside an old printing factory at the corner of East Milwaukee and Hastings in Detroit. Down a dark hallway, a doorway opens into a theater construction shop, and … sensory double-take. Dim light gives way to sharp fluorescents. Four beautiful women surround a piano, belting out lyrics, smiling and swaying as the music literally moves them. It shakes everything in the room.

These are showgirls. This is a rehearsal for Zabaugh’s Follies. The harmonies reach a high point, and chills take hold where sweat was glistening moments before. Something big is happening inside this old factory building, and it sure isn’t newsprint drying. Welcome to the Hastings Street Ballroom, Detroit. Welcome to the cabaret.

A night at the Follies

Zabaugh’s Follies is the latest show to hit HSB, which officially opened its doors earlier this summer. So far, word of mouth has been enough to keep curious crowds trickling in. According to Zabaugh’s co-writers Steve Sabaugh, of Second City, and Conor Draves, of the Mosaic Youth Theater, this show could pack the house.

“Fast-paced comedy sketches and sexy dancing girls — what more could anyone want?” Draves jokes.

Sabaugh, who created an earlier version of Follies as a Wayne State undergraduate, is a walking handbook of cabaret trivia. At 26, the writer-director wasn’t even born when Cabaret the musical (or even Bob Fosse’s movie version) high-kicked into American culture. Yet, Sabaugh sports a “Fosse” T-shirt and speaks in reverent terms about musical sketch comedy. It’s his forte. He knows his stuff.

“This show is just as much of a style piece as Shakespeare or even David Mamet. It’s not just your regular comedy,” says Sabaugh. “What I’m doing is about fun and excitement. It’s not cheap, but it’s not high comedy. To me, it’s a style that needs to be respected … For two hours a night, I want people to feel like they had fun. That’s what it’s all about.”

Cabaret theater may call to mind sexy legs and wacky high jinks. But Sabaugh’s brand of fun — which draws on the American burlesque tradition — features classic musical numbers backed by a live band, and tried-and-true comedy bits … with a modern twist.

“I didn’t want this show to be just a museum piece, like ‘here’s some boring songs from the turn of the century,’” says Sabaugh. “For this production, we took it up to about the mid-’60s. The scenes are a little bit more updated ... It’s Dick Van Dyke meets Abbott and Costello.”

And it is seriously, respectably, stylishly hilarious.

Hand-picked talent

Ziegfeld-style big guy “Mr. Zabaugh,” played by you-know-who in the original production, is now played by Joel Mitchell. That’s fine with Sabaugh, who calls Mitchell the “impresario of impresarios” and prefers the Wizard of Oz approach when it comes to directing his own material.

Who’s left? Eight performers hand-picked by Sabaugh because “I know they can nail it.”

Draves, for one, is a crack-up in roles such as Kupa Kafi Goldstein, Jew-turned-jungle native, whose coffee-baron parents raised him in Peru. Tim Campos, master of “physical gaggery,” has a talent for well-orchestrated falls and panicked facial expressions, eliciting laughter without uttering a word. Jonathan Navarre and Keith Kalinowski, both well-known local actors, round out the male end of the cast.

And that brings us to the main attraction. “Showgirls” seems too narrow a term for Zabaugh’s women. Sabaugh prefers “triple threats”(singing plus acting plus dancing). Julie Yurconis, Kelly Simon, Angela Keller and Alana Dauter are all talented actresses and singers in their own right. Under the direction of choreographer Jen Hoemke, they transform into the glue that holds the cabaret together. Anyone who’s seen Fosse’s Cabaret knows that even the male MC sneaks into the kick line at one point. It’s where the action’s at. It’s what the audience comes to see.

But for those who come seeking true cabaret, a word to the wise: Take a look around. Creativity rules at the old printing factory on Hastings. It’s not just limited to the stage.

Refreshing entertainment

The French term “cabaret” originally applied to venues where alcoholic refreshments were served during performances, but eventually “cabarets” became miniature art enclaves. Work was shared and creative juices flowed alongside the booze.

In the collaborative sense, then, “cabaret” is already happening throughout the Hastings Street complex. At any hour, you might find musicians practicing in a back room, actors running through lines on stage, artists painting in studios or dancers twirling in a loft on the third floor.

The building is slowly becoming an axis for the Detroit-area creative community. And according to owners Robin Buckson and Joe Van Bael, everyone is welcome. Buckson, a photographer for the Detroit News, and Van Bael, a local music promoter, bought the building two years ago with the idea of creating a multiuse arts space. A lot of hard work later, the compound houses Neil Alting’s Pipedream Studios theater construction shop, the Tangent Gallery, the studios of several local artists and, of course, the Hastings Street Ballroom.

With Alting, a former technical director at Wayne State University, running a scenic-and-lighting design shop out of the building, partnering up to build a theater was a no-brainer, according to Buckson. Pipedream Studios’ crew put up the stage within a few weeks and designed a space that can seat more than 200 people. Alting then began looking around for ZeitGeist-edgy shows to produce in a Gem-sized room. First and foremost in his mind was a former student named Steve Sabaugh.

Buckson fairly glows when she talks about the way things are beginning to happen — with the Hastings Street Ballroom, with Zabaugh’s Follies and with dozens of creative endeavors still in the works.

“We want [this building] to be a place where people can come and exchange ideas — whether it’s music or writing a play or painting or sculpture,” says Buckson.

“I think Detroit is ripe for having an enclave of art, and having a movement that focuses on every type of art,” Sabuagh agrees. “I read Kerouac and Bukowski, and I think, man, these were the voices for their generation … But we don’t have one [in Detroit]. And maybe it’s our cross to bear, to be that voice.”

Maybe. Hopefully. Buckson just stresses that good things come through collaboration, not through competition.

“We would like to be as collaborative as possible with other theaters, whether it’s rehearsal space or coordinating. We’ll put out fliers for anyone who wants to put them here,” Buckson says. “I don’t think it’s healthy for people to be so competitive that it creates negative energy, and I hope nobody sees us that way. We just want to see more good stuff happening in the city.”

And it is happening — right under her roof.

“Sometimes, I’m scrubbing the toilet or one of those great jobs that always seems to fall on me, and I’ll hear the theater group rehearsing … or go downstairs and see [the Tangent Gallery directors] hanging up the next show,” says Buckson. “It’s those kind of things that make it really exciting to be here. Because it was just a big, empty building before, and now it’s becoming a living place to be.”

On a fiery summer night, with chill-inspiring melodies floating through Zabaugh’s Follies rehearsal, Buckson’s assessment seems just right. This old factory is, indeed, coming to life.

It’s becoming a cabaret.

Zabaugh’s Follies will be at the Hastings Street Ballroom (715 E. Milwaukee, Detroit) July 12-Aug. 3, Fridays and Saturdays, at 8 p.m.; call 313-870-9002 for tickets.

E-mail Kari Jones at [email protected]
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