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Marin Producer Helps Keep Cabaret Alive in San Francisco

Charming Marilyn Levinson, a Marin resident, is successfully producing cabaret in San Francisco.

Cabaret producer Marilyn Levinson has lived in Larkspur a dozen years. But her work has thrived in San Francisco, with its impact felt throughout the Bay Area.

We share muffins in a casual breakfast chat at Corte Madera’s Il Fornaio restaurant. She laughs freely — and often.

Her eyes and conversation sparkle almost as brightly as her tasteful diamond earrings.

She charms me with her first few sentences.

Clearly, she explains, cabaret “can be much more than a show in a tiny dark cavern by a stereotypically aging ex-Broadway songstress in a tight gown dripping with sequins.”

Sooooo much more.

I’m there to glean details about the performances she’s generating at the Venetian Room of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel.

But I also get intriguing onstage, backstage and off-the-record stories about artists she encountered since she swapped lawyering for coordinating Cabaret Marin, which morphed into Bay Area Cabaret.

The nonprofit’s ninth season opened Oct. 28 with “the quintessential cabaret singer, Mary Wilson, in an intimate act that talks about her life after The Supremes," and continued Nov. 11 with Tommy Tune.

Another schedule highlight was a Dec. 9 encore by movie-TV-Broadway star Peter Gallagher, who prompted one female fan to write, “When he left the stage, I was ready to see his show all over again — and have his baby.”

Levinson finds it impossible to pick only one favorite local cabaret star or moment.

But she did enjoy Tony-winner Lillias White spontaneously yanking off her sharp-pointed high-heels and saying, ‘I’d like to see how you’d feel if you had to wear these shoes.’

Laura Benanti also delighted her by pulling out a uke and confessing “that when she was a girl, she thought Marilyn Monroe was so sexy when she played ukulele in ‘Some Like It Hot,’ then later realized that the ukulele wasn’t what made her so sexy.”

This six-show season, her ninth, will end with a tribute by Oscar-winning lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman to the late Marvin Hamlisch, on the composer’s June 2 birthday. Hamlisch had been the star when the Venetian Room reopened after being dark for 21 years.

Such offerings are a long way from Levinson’s first Marin productions, which spotlighted an opera singer, Sondheim music and dog stories.

Today, she says, “we try to mix it up, to aim things at difference audiences — like those of ‘Rent,’ Teen Idol and the older-crowd Chita Rivera appeals to.”

The producer’s moment of truth occurred when the last Mabel Mercer Cabaret Convention at the Herbst “was not too well attended despite the great performances. Because it was sad to see the audience dwindling, I thought it important to educate the audience or potential audience to an expanding definition of cabaret.”

Levinson’s introduction to the genre actually came at a little black-box theater in West Village in Manhattan, where she was living at the time. The singer, she remembers, “made me feel she was in dialogue with me in my living room, revealing herself. I just loved that.”

Her intro to show biz goes further back than that, however.

As executive coordinator of the precursor to the San Francisco Civic Light Opera, her mom invited stars such as Bing Crosby, Don Ameche and Mary Martin to their home.

Levinson herself volunteered at the American Conservatory Theatre as a teen, later founded a jazz dance company, worked for Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, Broadway producer Arthur Cantor and became Yul Brynner’s road manager for his final national tour of “The King and I.”

And then she went to Stanford Law School, becoming an entertainment and intellectual-property lawyer. She wed, had two sons, and cocooned in Larkspur.

The most difficult part of her work now, she discloses, “is the booking process, which begins in New York in the coldest month of the year and can go on for a full nine months after that.”

What makes it particularly tough, she says, “is having to compete for talent with venues three or four times our size.”

As for her biggest reward, that’s seeing what top-notch cabaret artists she can snare.

In that regard, filling out this season will be Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, a Valentine’s Day offering Feb. 17; Elaine Paige, March 1; and Nellie McKay paired with Chanticleer, March 23.

Levinson started her cabaret business, she tells me, because she had experienced so much good cabaret in New York and didn’t want to see the genre die.

Obviously, she’s succeeding.

So all I can add is, “Viva cabaret!”

The Bay Area Cabaret series will be held at the Fairmont’s Venetian Room, 950 Mason St., atop Nob Hill, San Francisco, through June 2. Tickets: $40-$75 per show, (415) 392-4400 or www.bayareacabaret.org.  

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