For a decade cabaret star Jim Caruso has been lighting up Mondays, traditionally Broadway's performance-free "dark night," with his late-night Cast Party. It's a star-studded open mike at Manhattan's Birdland nightclub, a time for stars to try out new material and unknowns to try to be discovered. Liza Minnelli likes to stop in and sing. Michael Feinstein's a regular. There have been surprise pop-ins by Martin Short, Paul Schaffer, Linda Lavin and Jeff Daniels. Phoebe Snow came in to see the show and the audience wouldn't stop shouting until she got up to sing.
With his name now in the title, Jim Caruso's Cast Party, co-starring pop-jazz pianist and singer Billy Stritch, regularly goes on the road to Vegas, Chicago, LA and, May 22-23, to North Dallas' Kitchen Cafe. Caruso got his start in Dallas in the 1980s as an actor, singer and witty cabaret emcee, acting at Theatre Three and the old Dallas Repertory Theatre and singing at supper clubs. (In the 1980s our first review of his trio, The Wise Guys, called them "three hams on wry.") Caruso has plenty of talented friends here -- Liz Mikel, Denise Lee, Gary Lynn Floyd -- whom he'll be inviting to share the stage in May.
New York Times nightlife critic Stephen Holden recently called Caruso "a polished, amusing host and all-around entertainer." He's also an all-around fun, friendly guy who took a few minutes before a gig at Lincoln Center to answer a few questions.
What led to your starting Cast Party? Cast Party grew out of the amazing bashes Liza Minnelli would throw on a regular basis. We'd feast on fried chicken, then retire to her mirrored jewel box of a music room overlooking Manhattan. Billy Stritch would be at the piano, and folks like Tony Bennett, Janet Jackson, Cy Coleman, Madonna, Esther Williams, Quentin Tarantino, Broadway divas, Brazilian musicians, jazzers and cabaret hacks like me would entertain!
Those parties, which still take place occasionally, were show biz dreams come true! At the time, I was doing press for a now-defunct nightclub that had absolutely nothing going on, so I decided to throw my own party. Everyone came and sang around the piano 'til the wee hours, and Cast Party was born. It was kind of an instant hit, but when we moved it to Birdland, things really got interesting. Being in an iconic music room that happens to be a tourist attraction, in the middle of the theater district, with state-of-the-art sound and lights, certainly helped put us on the map. The Broadway community immediately found us, since Monday is most everyone's dark night. Show folk love to entertain each other on their night off, and Cast Party became the place to be. It's a great place to try out new material, celebrate a CD release, hawk your show, flirt, schmooze, sing and be seen!
What have been some of the best surprise performances at a Cast Party?
One night when we first started at Birdland, the brilliant lyricist Betty Comden sat by herself watching all the fun. [With composer Adolph Green, Comden wrote Broadway hits On the Town and Bells Are Ringing, among others.] At one point, she whispered to me, "Would it be OK if I sang?" Needless to say, we got her up! She sang "100 Easy Ways To Lose A Man," which she wrote for Wonderful Town, which was playing in a revival up the street. It was one of her last appearances. [Comden died in 2002.] Natalie Cole just walked in unannounced a few months ago and sang a very swinging "Fever."
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One night, Donny Osmond stormed into Birdland, jumped onto the stage with us and sang a harmony on "The Holiday Season." Then he ran out of the club so that he could make the curtain for his Christmas show with Marie. The audience had no idea what was happening, or why someone who looked just like Donny Osmond made a 45-second appearance.
Ricki Lake and Cheyenne Jackson duetted on "Suddenly Seymour" [from Little Shop of Horrors], which is something you don't ever expect to see. Carol Channing joined us onstage in LA, spoke of her work for arts education, scolded me for upstaging her, then launched into "Before The Parade Passes By," without discussing it with Billy [the pianist]. Thankfully, he knew her arrangement and key. He's funny that way. You never know who the hell is going to walk through the door at any minute, which is part of the fun.
Does doing Cast Party on the road present any special challenges? Can you get some local "ringers" to perform to make sure it's not a bunch of karaoke types? Thanks to Facebook and the interwebs, it's pretty easy to seek out excellent talent in any city. I know lots of people -- and everyone has suggestions for the best theater singers, jazzers, songwriters and quirky types. And you know we love the occasional specialty act. You haven't lived until you've sat through didgeridoo players, an autoharpist, a hula dancer and a contortionist who swallows sculpting balloons while sitting on his own face.
Bring your didgeridoo and your hula skirt to Jim Caruso's Cast Party, 7:30-10:30 p.m., May 22-23, Kitchen Cafe, 17370 Preston Road, #415. Tickets $25. For reservations, call 972-818-3400 (ask for Tony or Lisa).