The local performance act known as Cabaret Kiki began as the daydream of a collaborative creative effort that included some of the most well-known music artists in town: Matt and Evan Bivins, formerly of Jump, Little Children; songstress Cary Ann Hearst; the New Music Collective founder Nathan Koci. To this mix they added a writing team, a couple of actors, and a handful of professional dancers from Charleston Ballet Theatre. The result is a risqué amalgam of burlesque, Vaudeville, and 1930s-style cabaret, all wrapped in modern-day irony and served with a healthy dose of sexual tension.
“Cary Ann, who plays the character of Caramella Guillotine in Kiki, did a sort of burlesque cabaret-inspired show at Cumberland’s a couple of years ago,” percussionist and artistic director Evan Bivins (who goes by the stage name Kurt Nihilist) recalls. “And that inspired me to think, wouldn’t it be fun if we could do something like this more often, more elaborately, with all original music and all original everything? So I started daydreaming with guitarist Bill Carson, who plays The Sleeper in the show, and we started finding people who are really smart and really funny, and it just caught fire.”
Since their first show on May 4, 2006, the phenomenon that is Cabaret Kiki has been generating an underground — and increasingly above-ground — buzz that’s turned their occasional appearances at Theatre 99 and elsewhere into must-see events. Kiki’s appeal seems ageless — audiences range from teens to seniors — despite the fact that musical cabaret as a widespread art form was obsolete by the mid-20th century. Watching the group channel that historic energy and make it their own is part of what makes Cabaret Kiki such a visceral, exuberant experience.
“We went to Chicago and saw the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit there,” Matt Bivins (a.k.a. emcee Jonny Panick) remembers. “And it wasn’t just about Toulouse-Lautrec, it was about the Moulin Rouge and the entire bohemian cabaret experience of that period. The dance acts, the satire, even shadow puppetry. And we really learned all the elements that made up the original cabaret. And our goal was to create a more modern version of that. To base it on that, but take it into a modern setting.”
During Piccolo, Kiki’s core musicians, the Dangerous Strangers, will present a pared-down six-show run at the 80-seat Buxton’s East Bay Theatre, where they’ll host a slate of guest artists like Tin Cup Prophette, Michael Flynn, Josh Kaler, and others while members of the full Kiki crew fulfill other Piccolo obligations. But the Dangerous Strangers’ Rogues’ Gallery, as the show is dubbed, will have all of the Kiki attitude — and all of the eyeliner.
The Dangerous Strangers present the Rogues’ Gallery • Piccolo Spoleto’s Piccolo Fringe • $15 • (1 hour) • June 1, 2, 8, 9 at 8:30 p.m.; June 6, 7 at 8 p.m. • Buxton’s East Bay Theatre, 184 East Bay St. • 554-6060