Kicking up their heels

Music, theater and a taste of Broadway are on show at the Perfectly Marvelous Cabaret.

Cabaret 521 (photo credit: Asaf Sagi)
Cabaret 521
(photo credit: Asaf Sagi)
‘What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret, old chum, come to our cabaret.”It sounds like a cliché, but these famous words from the musical Cabaret are the exact ones Tal Engel uses to persuade Tel Avivians to come and see the cabaret show he’s created.
The Perfectly Marvelous Cabaret consists of a group of young aspiring actors, dancers and singers who are aiming to bring to Tel Aviv a little bit of the naughtiness and sophistication that the nighttime theaters in London, Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris have to offer. The ensemble, made up of semi-professional performers, puts on shows that are unique to the Tel Aviv music and theater scene, which lacks a strong representation of cabaret performances, unlike other cities abroad.
The world of cabaret and musical theater is universal and it doesn’t matter which city it is performed in, according to Engel, because each city has so much to offer.
“A city within itself is a musical, there is so much happening that at any moment you could have Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers jump out doing a dance number,” he says.
Engel, who is the brains behind the project and produces the shows, has always been passionate about the world of theater and especially musical theater. Growing up in London with all the influences of the West End made a lasting impression on him, even though he was only there until the age of 15.
“I love the culture in Israel, but ultimately a large part of my heart always stayed in England,” Engel says. “Growing up in a city like London you grow up on the likes of Mary Poppins and ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.’”
With his parents always taking him to see West End musicals, he grew up singing many of the show tunes and this has stayed with him ever since: “Once you have the bug, it doesn’t leave you,” he says.
After the army, Engel earned a degree in cinema at Tel Aviv University. While studying he went to a lot of openmic nights, and also performed rock and blues music. He eventually set up his own very successful open-mic night, but he was still looking for something more.
“I had all these friends who also loved musicals and theater. Musical theater needs its own stage and there was nothing like that in Tel Aviv,” he says, explaining that there had been something similar in the past but the cabaret stages of the coastal city had been empty for quite some time.
Then, in 2009, Engel and a friend of his decided to put on “an open mic night with a bit of style” and held some very informal rehearsals. They booked a bar, publicized the night on Facebook and hoped for the best.
“We were expecting 50 or 60 people,” admits Engel “but 120 showed up.”
They thought it was worth putting on a second night and they attracted even more cabaret-loving punters.
“We have something on our hands,” Engel recalls saying at the time.
They took their show to a bigger venue and decided to look for more performers. With the help of their friends in the world of musical theater they went on to produce more successful shows. Most of the actors were friends of Engel’s, who stresses that the main criteria for him is that his actors can speak good English.
“They need to be able to speak in a way that an Israeli can understand. We are very hard on diction and pronunciation.”
The cast, which often changes, is usually a mix of performers who have backgrounds in different artistic disciplines and are also from different countries. All the performers have had musical theater school training and have all graduated from one theater school or another.
“The thing that connects us all is a love of the musical theater, and the format of cabaret lends itself very well to this,” Engel says.
He goes on to explain that cabaret is essentially variety theater, defined by a show with singing and dancing in a night club. In contrast to a regular theater, the audience at a cabaret show is sitting at tables and not in the standard uniform rows.
“You go and sit at a table with your friends and you talk and laugh. It’s our responsibility to get your attention,” Engel explains. “That’s what cabaret is all about.”
IN TERMS of the content of the shows performed by Engel and his team of cabaret stars, there is a massive range. There are usually a series of characters and each one tells a different tale.
“The show has a little bit of everything. You might have a song about unrequited love followed by a song about a stalker or things from a classic Broadway show. When you come to the cabaret you don’t know what you can expect.”
Each performance is slightly different, often with a specific theme relating to the time of the year or specific topic. Audience members are also encouraged to take part. The master of ceremonies has been known to make fun of the audience and during some of the songs, hapless cabaret-goers have been pulled up on stage with the actors.
The concept of cabaret is a bit riskier than the average show at a theater so the songs do tend to be naughtier, the language a little bit blue, and the dancing a little racy, Engel points out, but he’s keen to emphasize that this is not done just for its own sake.
“It’s all done with a wink and a nod. We talk a lot about sex and we talk about sexuality. At the end of the day, the audience is having their dinner and being told a story.”
Engel is very proud of being able to bring the world of cabaret to the young people of the city that never sleeps and claims that everybody, whether they want to admit it or not, has a love for the kind of material that is performed on a cabaret stage. He does however point out that not everyone enjoys the very formal atmosphere of the theater and suggests that the cabaret offers an alternative.
The Perfectly Marvelous Cabaret has a unique selling point in that all the songs are performed in English, the language they were intended to be sung in. Instead of trying to translate the content and cater it to the local audience, Engel makes no apologies for staying true to the original meaning of the songs. Although the specific numbers are very tweaked a little each show, these amendments are due more to artistic considerations than anything else.
“People here [in Israel] learn English and they have a love of foreign culture. The Israelis understand that when you step foot into the cabaret there is not a word of Hebrew spoken,” Engel says.
He adds that the audience is also made up of a large percentage of Anglos looking for an authentic Englishspeaking experience. This attention to detail and respect for the original songs is also shared just as much by the performers as it is by the audience members.
Singer, dancer and self-described all-around handyman, Or Mashiah says that although English is not his native language he feels it is an honor to perform the cabaret show in English.
“To perform the songs in the original language that the composer or writer intended is the most important thing. Sometimes a lot of things get lost in translation and they just sound bad. You hear it and that is not what the songwriter intended.”
He explains that sometimes it’s easier performing in English rather than Hebrew, even though it is not his mother tongue, “because the English language is so much richer and the range is bigger.”Mashiah also appreciates the friendly atmosphere that has been created among the performers in the relatively short space of time.
“It’s not the kind of job where you count the hours. You come because you want to come,” he explains. “No one does it for the money. Everyone is doing it for the love of performing. It’s really liberating as an artist to work and create at the same time.”
This sentiment is also shared by choreographer Leanna Peledrozen, who says that she came in as a dancer and there was a lot of chaos, but that she appreciates the laidback and intimate feeling the performers share.
She also sees the importance of respecting the original format but stresses that sometimes there is a need to adapt the choreography to the specific show in terms of who is performing it. The cast always has a say in what numbers will be performed, she adds.
“Everyone has a voice. Everyone is given the chance to shine.”
The next show will take place on Saturday November 26.
For more information and to book tickets visit