The Venetian Room as it appears today. Below, the Venetian Room in the 1950s and opening-night headliner Marvin Hamlisch.
Sometimes I feel like I got to San Francisco just a little bit too late.
By the time I got here in 1990, the cabaret heyday was long past, and just a year before, the famed Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel – where Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. had all performed and where, in 1962, Tony Bennett introduced a little tune called “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” – shut its doors as a musical venue after more than four decades and became just another overly ornate meeting room.
Tonight, I’m happy to report, the Venetian Room reopened as the new home of Bay Area Cabaret, Marilyn Levinson’s seven-year-old nonprofit fighting to keep classy cabaret alive in San Francisco.
Levinson called the re-launched Venetian room a “secret dream,” one that has now been not-so-secretly realized.
Though the cigarette girls are no longer roaming the room, the glamour quotient for the Bay Area cabaret scene has risen a few notches. At Sunday’s opening-night gala, there were indeed ladies in furs and that classic cabaret mystique – part sophistication, part see and be seen, part icy martini – was back in play. It’s hard not to get caught up in the swirl of excitement when you walk through the lobby of the Fairmont to get to the Venetian Room – it’s so opulent, and not in that faux Las Vegas wannabe way. This is the real thing.
If the lighting and sound in the room aren’t perfect, and if the tables are wobbly and the chairs crammed too close together, it was hard to mind. Levinson’s joy at the room’s re-opening, echoed by Tom Klein, the Fairmont’s general manager, was contagious.
The opening-night entertainment fell to Marvin Hamlisch, an unlikely superstar. But how else to describe the man who shared a Pulitzer for his first Broadway show (A Chorus Line) after he’d already racked up three Oscars for his work on the movies The Way We Were and The Sting. He has Tonys, Emmys and Grammys as well, putting him in that elite, multi-award-winner circle that will forever attach awards to his name.
Hamlisch has quite a polished act. He tickles the ivories to be sure, but he’s a heck of a comedian. Noting that performers really do have to walk through the kitchen to get to the stage, he said, “The cantaloupe looked good.” Hamlisch is also a generous composer who happily shares the stage and his piano playing with Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. Though he’s won just about every award imaginable, he shared a medley of Academy Award losers that included “The Look of Love,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “Nobody Does It Better.”
For a medley of songs by Richard Rodgers (his mother’s favorite composer – don’t ask), he was joined by Les Miserables journeyman J. Mark McVey, whose gorgeous baritone was especially well utilized on “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” McVey also deigned to do one of his own standards, “Bring Him Home,” which he described as the “prayer from the second-act barricade.”
After saying he likes to write to titles, Hamlisch entertained audience title suggestions then proceeded to compose a song to match. The evening’s newly minted song was “Letting Go the List,” which also worked in a rejected audience offering, “Oh No You Didn’t!”
Maria Friedman, the special guest for the evening, had just flown in from London, where she is in rehearsals for The Invisible Man, a new musical based on the H.G. Wells tale. The winner of three Olivier Awards and considered an eminent Sondheim interpreter, Friedman punched through “Being Alive,” “Broadway Baby” and “Send in the Clowns.” She’s lovely, but I was underwhelmed. When Friedman returned later in the show to sing “The Way We Were,” she started off with the wrong lyrics and asked to start over. Let’s credit that to jet lag and move on.
Hamlisch trotted out a trio of songs he wished he’d written – “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewidlered” and “Somewhere” – and then launched into three songs of his own, “three songs only four people know,” which was a bit of an exaggeration. “Falling” from They’re Playing Our Song, “The Last Time I Felt Like This,” the Oscar-nominated theme from Same Time Next Year and “If You Remember Me” (lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager) are not exactly obscure, but it’s always good to hear them.
The evening ended, somewhat ironically, with an overture – the never-used A Chorus Line overture, but before that, Hamlisch had an observation. “This room has a great vibe,” Hamlisch said, surveying the jam-packed Venetian. “It has always been a great room.”
And it looks as though it will continue to be. Sometimes, when you’re lucky, it feels like you’re in San Francisco at exactly the right time.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Bay Area Cabaret season includes Chita Rivera’s My Broadway Nov. 5; Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp’s Adam & Anthony Live: the Guys from Rent Nov. 21; John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey in The Carlyle Show March 13; Anika Noni Rose in concert May 1; and Lilias White in a Cy Coleman tribute called My Guy Cy May 14. Tickets range from $35 to $60 with discounts (and reserved seats) for subscribers. Call 415 392-4400 or visit www.bayareacabaret.org for information.