"We convert it into the feel of a New York cabaret," says Liz McMahon, IT's director of PR and development, and a performer in one of the shows. "We can seat about 120 people at long cocktail tables. It's a nice, intimate show that adds a little glitz, a little sparkle to a summer evening."
The nine-day series begins with July 5-8 performances of Songs of the Century. In March, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America sent schools a curriculum guide covering what they determined to be the 20th century's 365 recordings most deserving landmark status, ranging from Vess Ossman's 1894 "Yankee Doodle" to Lee Ann Womack's 2000 "I Hope You Dance." (Peruse the complete list at www.nea.gov/endownews/news01/songlist.html.)
Susan Claassen, IT's managing artistic director and a woman who apparently believes you can never have too much of a good thing, resolved to cram all 365 of those songs into a single show. A bit of math, figuring that each song averages three minutes, suggests that Songs of the Century should stretch out to about 18-and-a-half hours. McMahon, however, vows that the cabaret presentation will comfortably fit into a single evening.
"We're doing some medleys," she concedes, "and we're doing at least one word from each song. We figure with 'the' and 'love,' we've got most of them covered."
McMahon and 11 other performers will undertake the song-and-dance tribute, which ranges from Broadway anthems to jazz standards, Motown and rock.
It's a challengingly broad stylistic range, but McMahon says that all the performers do a little bit of everything. You can guess what Mary Baker, one of Tucson's best blues and R&B singers, will focus on. Equally popular local vocalists featured with Baker and McMahon include longtime summer sizzlers Betty Craig and Jack Neubeck, and newcomer Walter Belcher. "He just makes me melt when he sings, he's got such a beautiful voice," McMahon swoons.
McMahon is trying to keep as much of the repertoire a surprise as possible, but she does mention a few familiar titles. She's singing "Stardust," Baker does "God Bless the Child," Craig croons "It Had To Be You," but it isn't entirely an evening of old standards.
"There will be some surprise songs that you won't be seeing performed in other cabaret settings," she says. "Probably some of these songs made it onto the list not because the individual song was spectacular but because the song or its singer did something to change the music industry or to set a new tone."
IT is mounting Songs of the Century all on its own, but the two subsequent components of "Sizzling Summer Sounds" come pretty much ready-made.
July 9 and 10 bring Lisa Otey and the Desert Divas. Otey, of course, is the Gaslight Theatre's indefatigable music director and a first-rate singer-pianist on her own. She'll join forces with Kathleen Williamson, "Hurricane" Carla Brownlee and Anna Warr in what's billed as a high-energy concert that will "rock the roof with blues, 'twisted' torch, bold and beautiful R&B, and a tribute to Betty Hutton."
The final three nights, July 11-13, are given over to the nUAnce vocal jazz ensemble, with Jim Taylor and the King's Quartet, in a salute to the big band era. As you might guess from the odd capitalization scheme, nUAnce is a University of Arizona student outfit. The group, says McMahon, has just finished a two-week, five-state tour performing American jazz for about 30 school and community groups.
By presenting three different shows this year, IT hopes to lure some fans back again and again. Indeed, McMahon says she's "amazed at how many people have already ordered the season package and agreed to come out to three performances in a week and a half."
Not that there's much else to do right after the Fourth of July--which makes "Sizzling Summer Sounds" that much more of a hot ticket.