When I interviewed Jim Caruso last week, he joked that the experiment to bring his Manhattan-based Cast Party to Chicago could be a disaster: “It might just be Billy [Stritch] and me singing all the chestnuts to an empty house,” he said, laughing.
In fact, the exact opposite happened. I introduced myself to Mr. Caruso 20 minutes to showtime, and he held up his list of performers with a look of shock in his eyes. “Look at all these people,” he stammered. “How are we ever going to get through them?”
Well, when I left the packed Mayne Stage at 10:40 last night, Jim Caruso’s Cast Party was still going strong, indicating that the experiment to bring his popular open mic night to Chicago was a big success.
During the two-plus hours I attended, some of my favorite Chicago theatre performers got to show their fierceness, including Bethany Thomas, who, accompanied by guitar, ripped through “Crazy On You” by rock band Heart; Rebecca Finnegan, who sold “Ten Cents a Dance” like her life depended on it; and Rob Lindley, who brought down the house with “Way Ahead of My Time,” a hilarious song about the world’s first gay (cave)man. I was also introduced to some of Chicago’s iconic cabaret performers, including Lynne Jordan, who kicked off the party with her ballsy rendition of Ruth Brown’s “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Sit On It;” Becky Menzie and Tom Michael, who scatted together with style; and Joan Curto, who blew me away with her huge vocals.
Another standout was Luba Mason, a Broadway actress appearing in White Noise (which I’m seeing Wednesday and will report back on), who breezed her way through a wonderfully fresh, Brazilian jazz take on “Love for Sale.”
There were also a few head-scratching performances, but that comes with the territory of an open mic night. And there were a few instances where an arrogant NYC attitude stank up the evening — such as when Colleen McHugh joked that she was just stopping through to pick up her dry cleaning. Tacky.
A few suggestions to make the evening run a bit smoother if they come back (which I’m hoping and suspecting they will): Put a cap on the evening — 2.5 hours tops. Who wants to stay at a party that wears on? Also, Caruso, who proves a wry, snappy host, could benefit from some additional pre-planned banter between performers. At one point, he acknowledged how much he dreaded these lulls in the evening. Well, do something about it?
I also found it odd for the host of a Chicago open mic night to have no clue who some of Chicago’s well-known musical theatre talents are — such as Finnegan and Thomas. I certainly can’t blame Caruso for that, but it’s a strange scenario and one that I suspect will be remedied if this becomes a regular thing.
Finally, major kudos to pianist (and, oh yeah, jazz icon) Billy Stritch, who managed to keep the party hopping by arranging tunes on-the-spot for these performers. He makes it all look so easy.
I suspect we’ll see Cast Party come back, as there seemed to be a hunger for this sort of thing, both from the audience and performer perspectives.