Cyd Wolf has no trouble explaining the whys behind her Cabaret at Germano's, an intimate dining-performance experience practically unique in Baltimore. She and her husband, Germano's founder Germano Fabiani, simply saw an opening and decided to fill it.
"We do what nobody else does," says Wolf, who's an in-house attorney for a bank when she's not running the 75-seat venue in Little Italy that, since May 2008, has been among Baltimore's favorite haunts for jazz musicians and traditional cabaret performers. Perched on the second floor atop the 37-year-old Germano's, the cabaret offers not only an intimate setting, but also a musical and performance lineup pretty-much unequaled in Charm City.
But while Germano's may offer the fullest and most eclectic line-up, other Baltimore venues follow parts of the same path — offering a meal-and entertainment-mix that falls somewhere between a dinner theater and a nightclub.
At the Belvedere's remodeled 13th Floor, crooner Tommy Joy invokes the spirits of such legends as Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole on a nightly basis. The occasional Opera Nights at Sotto Sopra in Mount Vernon enable diners to enjoy a little "Carmen" with their meal. Even Highlandtown's Creative Alliance has been getting in on the act, combining shows and performances with dinner at its Marquee Lounge.
"It's all about reaching across the barrier to create an intimate experience for the performer and the audience," says Josh Kohn, performance director at the Creative Alliance. "The idea is to make it very easy for an artist to look directly at an audience member and make that connection."
No place locally does that better than Cabaret at Germano's — or offers a more eclectic playbill. One night, you might get to watch Charisma Wooten and her tribute to "Moms" Mabley, the next you could listen to the jazz stylings of Stef Scaggiari, and in the ensuing weeks you could hear a Beatles tribute band (the Apple Scruffs), a celebration of Edgar Allan Poe (performed by Poe stalwart Tony Tsendeas) and ragtime from Adam Swanson.
"This was strictly a labor of love," says Wolf, who started the cabaret while her daughters, Alessandra and Francesca, were students at the Baltimore School for the Arts. The initial idea, she said, was to provide a venue for the school's students and other emerging artists to perform.
While the cabaret still sponsors the occasional performance from BSA students and others associated with the school, its schedule expanded quickly into other areas. Wolf sounds especially proud of the classic cabaret shows, featuring performers delving into what is called the Great American Songbook — a repertoire heavy on Broadway show tunes and the works of such noted songwriters as George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington and Johnny Mercer.
"You're hearkening back decades to some of the great American tunes, from Tin Pan Alley on," says Mary Reilly, a frequent performer at Germano's. "A cabaret show is very carefully constructed. It has an arc, so that you tell a story in a way that the audience can follow you, and you're usually bringing that audience in from the very first song."
Such journeys, Reilly stresses, don't work unless the venue offers the sort of intimacy promoted by Germano's. "The performer has to have that connection to the audience," she says. "That's critically important; that's what's going to bring the audience in. You have to give them the opportunity to be touched by what they are hearing."
Performers swear by Germano's. "They care about the art," says Wooten. "You feel like a rock star. They show respect for the artists and the art. You're not going to get that at every venue.
"Cyd and Germano," she adds, "they call me today to come over and host something? I would start walking to get there. And I'm not going to do that for everyone."
At the Belvedere's 13th Floor, which reopened in October 2012 following extensive renovations, owner Sondra Goad says she was looking to invoke the spirit of earlier times, when dress codes were de rigueur (the 13th Floor calls for business casual and allows no athletic apparel or sneakers), when crooners like Joy were more the rule than the exception. Joy, who was performing at the Belvedere back in the 1980s, offers a throwback to the days of the Rat Pack, Goad notes with pride, and audiences love it.
"Maybe you want to cap off your night by listening to some tunes that are not screaming or yelling," Goad says. "We seem to get audiences that are across the board, all generations. I mean, good music is good music."
Joy, a native of Baltimore's Little Italy, acknowledges that places like the 13th Floor are throwbacks. "The city at one time had a couple of those places, but the number is kind of dwindling."
But audience enthusiasm isn't, he insists. "About 20 years ago, things turned around very quickly," he says. "People wanted to hear good music again. … I think there's always a place for class, and there's always a place for Great American Songbook music."
At the Creative Alliance, audiences have been getting up close and personal with a whole range of performers, everything from folk singers to burlesque artists. The result is an intimate experience impossible to duplicate in a larger, more impersonal space, says Kohn.
"It would be very difficult to have those experiences in a 1,000-seat venue," he says.
The alliance, Kohn says, is looking to expand such offerings, where audiences can enjoy a meal and a close encounter with a performer or performance. There could be more family-style movie programs, he says, or more burlesque-style offerings (like the alliance's popular "Tassels & Champagne" programs). "I actually think I'm finding more and more around the country that venues are thinking about the connection between audience and artist, food and drink, and how those different branches of the experience can come together and connect," he says. "I think we're moving in more of a direction to have a small sit-down space where one can purchase a good meal and watch an artist.
"Having that intimate listening experience — that's a powerful connection."