Sizzling at Soleil

Invisible Theatre's cabaret series is back, this time at a smaller, diner-friendly venue

Invisible Theatre's summer cabaret series is moving up--into the foothills.

With the Arizona Inn, the series' longtime venue, under renovation, Sizzling Summer Sounds is transferring to a room with a view: the window-wrapped restaurant Soleil, perched at the intersection of Campbell Avenue and Skyline Drive.

Invisible Theatre head Susan Claassen acknowledges that it's a bit of a risk moving from a room at the Arizona Inn that had table seating for 120 to Soleil, which can seat only 80. "The artists know that the potential income is less," she says, "but they love to be showcased in an intimate, elegant environment like this."

A point in the new venue's favor is that patrons can actually dine at their tables immediately before the show, and stay put for drinks and dessert after; at the Arizona Inn, the series was installed in a ballroom separate from the restaurant facilities. At Soleil, although there will be no food service during the performances, patrons can dine right up to showtime, choosing from the regular upscale California-Mediterranean menu (including a separate, extensive vegetarian selection) or the $25 three-course summer special.

If moving to a smaller venue is a risk for IT, Soleil itself is taking a chance, with a nightly cabaret series potentially getting in the way of its regular activities.

"We tend to do a lot of corporate parties, and we won't be able to do those during this time," says restaurateur Kelley Matthews. "But regardless of the bottom-line results, this is a wonderful thing to do. Invisible Theatre is one of this city's cultural treasures; we share a lot of clientele, and to me, the two best things in the world are theater and restaurants. If you can combine them, it's magic. I didn't have to think two seconds about this."

Matthews grew up in Connecticut, and her family spent a lot of time in New York City. "We would stroll through art galleries and go out to dinner and enjoy a nightclub performance afterward," she says. "It's harder to do that in Tucson, and I miss it, so this is like a gift to myself."

The aforementioned art gallery is El Presidio Gallery, neighboring the restaurant; it will be open before and after performances, and will double as the cabaret performers' green room.

Many of the performers this summer are veterans of past IT presentations, although it's been at least two years since most of the big names participated in Sizzling Summer Sounds. Chanteuse Amanda McBroom, composer of "The Rose," opens the series over the course of three nights, June 15-17. This Sunday, June 18, locals Rob Boone and Christine Vivona meld the sounds of trombone, piano and harp into a program called "My Romance." IT favorite Liz McMahon revives her Patsy Cline revue, "Crazy," June 20-21.

On June 22, it's "Soleil Olé" with progressive blues singer and pianist Lisa Otey the center of attention, and guests including young Tucson-bred fiddler and vocalist Elise Ackermann. Then it's "Boys Night Out," a Rat Pack tribute, June 23-25. Jeff Haskell, Jack Neubeck and Joe Bourne salute Frank, Dino and Sammy, although it's doubtful a Peter Lawford impersonator will show up. This is a new show, "hot off my iBook," says Claassen.

Tucson-based jazz pianist Susan Artemis and sidemen play summer songs in a one-night show called "Too Darn Hot" June 27. Then it's "Ragtime and Romance" with pianist Richard Glazier, a specialist in Gershwin and Tin Pan Alley, June 28-29. Jeff Haskell will be back, this time in the company of dynamic jazz and blues vocalist Mary Baker--who skipped town a few years ago--for a reunion series June 30-July 2. "Mary was one of our originals when we started doing Sizzling Summer Sounds at the Doubletree way back when," Claassen says.

After a break for Independence Day, the series resumes July 5-6 with an ensemble show called "Seasons of Love," featuring McMahon, Neubeck, Haskell and Betty Craig. Sizzling Summer Sounds wraps up July 7-8 with two shows by pianist-singer Steve Ross, one of the leading figures in the cabaret revival in New York City.

Last week, Soleil's Matthews hadn't even started moving tables out of the corner where Claassen will set up her elevated stage, and it was only beginning to dawn on her that she could concoct some drink specials thematically tied to each performance. But psychologically, at least, she was clearly ready for the shows to begin.

"You don't get this sophisticated supper-club atmosphere many places outside New York," she says. "This is a small project, but it makes me feel like I'm back home."

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