K-Tel Cabaret

Michael Holland and Karen Mack make a performance party out of hits from the Seventies and Eighties

Karen Mack and Michael Holland
Karen Mack and Michael Holland

Cabaret isn't just for Gershwin anymore.

As the next offering from Austin Cabaret Theatre proves, it's also for Billy Joel, Bonnie Tyler, and Boston. Just ask Michael Holland and Karen Mack, a pair of formidable New York City cabaret artists who have developed a phenomenal following by performing songs by just such artists and a host of other Seventies and Eighties chart busters, from George Michael and the Doobie Brothers to Cat Stevens and Kansas. Their initial tribute to music of the Me Decade, a show with the unlikely title Gashole, ran for seven sold-out months, which launched the inevitable sequel, Ice Gasholes ... the next decade, dedicated to songs in the time of leg warmers and Izods. That proved equally successful and led to more fans and critical acclaim, awards, and a commission from the Manhattan Association of Clubs and Cabarets and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to create a salute to Grammy Award winners past and present. The duo descend on Austin this week with Retro-Spectacular!, a sampler version of their Gashole shows.

ACT producer Stuart Moulton, who caught the duo's act in New York and decided they needed to be seen in Austin, describes their show as "a hoot! What's apparent is that Karen and Michael are such great friends, so the whole show becomes a party -- the audience is the guest in their home, and someone says, 'Hey, sing something for us!' and for the next two hours, they do!"

According to Holland, the duo manages to cram 40-50 songs into a show, mostly by performing bits of them together in medleys, what he calls "the tag sale of musical forms. It's not usually very classy, yet people take The Medley very seriously in cabaret, all the time wielding it like a battle-axe. I just figured it would be a fun gimmick to use medleys a little differently." He offers by way of example their medley that segues from ABBA's "Waterloo" into 10cc's "The Things We Do for Love" into the same group's "I'm Not in Love" into Paul and Linda McCartney's "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" into Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" and then back to ABBA for "Money, Money, Money."

As should be clear enough from that medley, Mack and Holland do the good songs and the bad songs of those bygone decades. "We love the cheese just as much -- sometimes more," Holland admits. "But that's part of the fun. I'm not sure we'll be doing this one [in Austin], but we do a medley of 'Africa' [Toto] with 'Broken Wings' [Mr Mister]. Both pleasant enough tunes, both incredible records. Now, if you look at the lyrics of each tune, you will discover that they are mortifyingly bad. The challenge is to sing the stuff with enough integrity that it's still fun, raises the music a notch or two, and even pokes a little fun at the same time." Still, adds Mack, "There were also some great songs and songwriters during the Seventies and Eighties and plenty of tunes that didn't get such a fair shake as good songs the first time around. We like to give at least a little time to all of them. It's very cool to have folks come out after a show with a new take on something that they remembered as just an OK radio hit until then. I got an e-mail from a fan this morning who said that he never thought that he could be moved by 'Some Guys Have All the Luck' and that he couldn't wait to bring new people the next time. That was huge to hear."

How a song comes to be covered by Mack and Holland has a lot to do with their shared affection for the songs of their youth. "When Michael and I first starting hanging out together," says Mack, "some of the best times we had were hanging around the jukebox at our favorite bar and finding that we knew and remembered all the same songs. Well, Michael remembers all of them. I remember a verse and a half of all of them. OK, a real verse and half a verse of what I'm sure are the right words but aren't. Like you don't do that. Sing the chorus of 'Blinded by the Light' right now. You know those words aren't right, but you still sang it like you wrote it, didn't you? I rest my case."

In Holland's case, he'll sometimes draw inspiration from long-held frustration. "Since I was a kid, it drove me crazy that parts of 'Jackie Blue' and 'Movin' Out' were essentially the same song. That kind of commentary is often the impetus behind one of our creations, and if it works, it starts to take on its own life from there."

Certainly, their collaboration has taken on a life of its own: They've just finished their fifth Gashole show, and their fan base continues to grow. Did they expect this when they first launched Gashole as a last-minute replacement in an arts festival in Indiana? "I don't think anybody puts a cabaret show together with the expectation of being held over for seven months," says Holland. "Actually, we were offered an even longer run, but turned it down so we could work on something new. We didn't want to run it into the ground. Remember the last season of Barney Miller, when you got one laugh a week? I hope we all learned something there. But audiences have been pretty amazing -- they really seem to like the spin we put on things. It's familiar but brand new at the same time." end story

Karen Mack and Michael Holland perform Retro-Spectacular! Oct. 3 and 4 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 207 W. 18th. For information, call 453-2287.

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