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Life Is a Cabaret

Now that the holiday season is winding down, the countless company socials highlighting smooth jazz bands and cheap wine have left me yearning for something better.

Seeking some reception-room detox, I recently went to check out the last bastion of an almost forgotten era, and perhaps entertainment at its purest -- a cabaret show.

These shows draw from a colorful history, ranging from the cancan in Paris, decedent cabaret clubs during Germany's Weimar era, saloons in the American West and mobster speakeasies during Prohibition.

Le Scandal

I didn't know what to expect from New York's longest-running variety show, Le Scandal at The Cutting Room in New York City, owned by "Sex and the City" actor Chris Noth and musician Steve Walter. The show has been called everything from vaudeville to cabaret, and is now in its seventh year.

Once inside, I thought of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's sumptuous paintings of Paris' avant garde at the Moulin Rouge , the birthplace of the cancan.

I recalled Marilyn Monroe as a corseted saloon singer in River of No Return, New Orleans, jazz singers and Coney Island sideshows. The associations are endless and continue today on fashion runways worldwide and in popular movies such as Chicago and Idlewild.

And as I took my place in a buzzing audience, I understood Cabaret star Sally Bowles' question, "What good is sitting alone in your room?"

Then Bonnie Dunn, the producer and featured performer of Le Scandal, came on stage wearing a saucy evening gown. In a smoky voice, she told the ladies and gentlemen in the audience to sit back, enjoy the food and get to know each other (with a wink) while she launched into her first sultry jazz number.

If not for the state-of-the-art sound and light equipment, I would have expected to spot some WWII sailors on leave listening to "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't (My Baby)."

When Guinness Book of World Records holder Natasha Veruschka, a belly dancing sword-swallower, gallantly gulped five swords, a woman in the back fainted, but in the spirit of cabaret, awoke smiling.

Cabaret shows are not for the bashful, but for those seeking nostalgia, thrills and performance art all rolled into one spectacle, they won't disappoint. To live up to its name, Le Scandal has to be a tad sexy, but this new incarnation of cabaret has even been described as a post-feminist movement. "The show has more to do with freedom of expression and redefining what Madison Avenue calls sexy," explains Dunn.

The Good Ol' Days

Dunn says the main appeal of the Le Scandal show -- and cabaret in general -- is a campy innocence that harks back to the old days of entertainment. "It's funny and outrageous ... people want to see live performers again," she says.

Growing up in New Orleans, Dunn was inspired by what she refers to as the "burlesque sensibility" of the famous French Quarter. She recorded with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint and has sung all over the world in jazz clubs and cabarets.

"Some of the women that danced [in cabaret and jazz clubs] in the 1920's had so much elegance and grace onstage," says Dunn.

"When people think of cabaret in New York, they think of a woman in a gown next to a piano. At the Moulin Rouge, they do a cancan routine," says Dunn, who explained that the entertainers' theatrical costumes reflect the different styles of performance.

Today, Dunn points out, cabaret has become mainstream, not only in cosmopolitan club shows, but in current fashion and movies.

To view Annika Mengisen's video take of today's Good Life segment, click here .
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