Cabaret Oldtown founder Christine Tasheff and current owner Christi Moore just can’t believe that the intimate, art deco, speakeasy-flavored theater on the second floor of a historic building in downtown Wichita is beginning its 20th season this month.
No, they’re not surprised that the theater has lasted this long while others have faltered.
“We filled a void in Wichita entertainment by carving out a niche for hip, smart, cutting-edge musicals not on any other local group’s radar,” said Tasheff, ticking off shows like “Pageant,” “Menopaus-A-Palooza!” and “Evil Dead: The Musical.”
But both say they are surprised that the time has flown so quickly.
“I had fun,” Tasheff said. “I loved it. It’s been the best period of my life.”
A Wichita native, she returned home after years in the Los Angeles area as a contemporary folk singer a la Joan Baez/Judy Collins. She opened Cabaret in 1993 partly to provide a home for local talent like “Commedia” and partly as therapy in kicking her drug and alcohol problems.
“It worked. I’m 31 years sober,” said Tasheff, who now paints pet and people portraits, as well as specialty trompe l’oeil interiors by commission. “I miss it. I still have Cabaret dreams every week.”
Tasheff sold the theater in 2005 to Moore, a Kansas actor then based in New York, during a Wichita visit just after Moore had toured the country as the Wicked Witch opposite Mickey Rooney in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I had performed at Cabaret during its early years,” Moore said. “My husband (theater sound designer Mark Leslie) and I had been looking to open our own small theater in upstate New York, just like Cabaret Oldtown. But we couldn’t find a space we could afford. Everything was $1 million-plus.”
While sitting in the audience at Cabaret one night during that trip back to Kansas, Moore told Tasheff about her search. Tasheff asked her why she just didn’t make her an offer for the real thing.
“I had a beautiful home in New York. I had a career there. I wasn’t thinking about coming back to Kansas,” Moore said. “But it seemed right, so we went for it.”
Moore moved back to Kansas to run the theater and raise her son, Michael, now 18. She produced all of the shows (31 so far), directing most of them and appearing in quite a few with a stable of longtime local performers like Kyle Vespestad, Monte Wheeler, Angela Geer and Cary Hesse, plus rising student talent from local universities.
To keep a guaranteed cash flow, Leslie still tours with national shows. He’s currently with “Mamma Mia!” and gets back to Wichita about every three months, Moore said.
“I get to do what I love with the people I love, day after day. It’s a truly blessed life,” Moore said. “I believe in Cabaret Oldtown. I can’t see retiring. I don’t want to sound morbid, but I want to be like Ted Morris — lucky guy.”
Morris — founder/director of Crown Uptown Dinner Theatre for three decades — died of a heart attack at 70 while preparing for his annual Christmas show. Both Moore and Tasheff honed their acting chops at Crown.
For the start of this 20th season, Moore is doing a rare encore in bringing back “Streakin’: A Musical Flashback to the 1970s” because it represents serendipitous connections between her and Tasheff.
“Christine had originally produced it in 2000 or 2001, workshopping it for (New York creators) James Rocco and Albert Evans before it transferred to off-Broadway for a successful run in 2003,” Moore said. “I was in that New York production playing seven different roles, from a disco nerd to a trucker to a feminist like Gloria Steinem to a glamorous game-show host like Vanna White. I wanted to bring the show back and do it again because it was such fun.”
“Streakin’ ” takes a satirical and nostalgic look back at the era of disco, smiley faces, Partridge Family values and, of course, streaking. Music was adapted from sources like John Denver, James Taylor, Karen Carpenter and Carole King.
“It also has some serious moments because it’s a commentary on the 1970s,” Moore said, “which included the Vietnam War protests, drug use and alternate lifestyles.”
Starring with Moore are longtime collaborator and co-choreographer Vespestad; Wichita State University theater grad Alex Johnson, now part of Brandeis Theatre Company in Boston; WSU theater grad Kylie Jo Smith, making her Cabaret debut; Emporia State University theater grad Dylan Lewis, recently seen in Cabaret’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”; and WSU theater grad Maurice Sims, who has appeared with Kansas City Starlight Theatre and Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.
Rich Bruhn on keyboards will lead the Cabaret Oldtown Band: Ron Smith on guitar, John Probst on bass and Steve Hatfield and David Consiglio on drums.