When you hear “cabaret,” the first mental image that flashes across your synapses might be a bowler-hatted Liza Minnelli flexing her garters in Bob Fosse’s classic 1972 film musical. Puppets are not part of the picture.
But cabaret acts have changed since Sally Bowles’ salad days.
Imaginative cabaret artist Craig Figtree has earned accolades on the San Francisco and Chicago circuits for his vocalizing and taste in song selection, but the heart of his act is puppets.
Lest anyone suffer from visions of a resurrected Wayland Flowers, forget crass Vegas flash; think Noel Coward suave. Figtree’s no ventriloquist, and his puppets are more elegant than Flowers’ wisecracking Madame.
Figtree’s puppets help bring torch songs, pop standards and Broadway laments to life as he simultaneously guides their motions and interacts with them as individual performers.
They’re bunraku-like puppets, several feet tall — also known as rod puppets due to the way they are manipulated. Figtree hand-builds them, then outfits them in lace, lamé, sequins, satin, feather boas and fancy gowns suited to the roles they’re playing. (They generally represent popular divas from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.) Each puppet’s eye-popping attire is determined by the song she’s “singing” with Figtree.
In Japanese bunraku theater, puppets are typically manipulated by three people onstage, but Figtree uses rods or his hands to move them around himself while a trio or small ensemble supports him musically.
According to former Second City and “Saturday Night Live” veteran Nora Dunn, who occasionally provides an offstage voice for his puppets while he sings baritone, the puppetry is his way of carrying on a family tradition.
“He’s just a tremendous performer,” she says. “His father was a vaudevillian, so when he was a kid he performed with his father — [it was] the last days of vaudeville. They toured all over the place when there were acrobats and a dance troupe. … His act is really brilliant.”
Like many cabaret artists, Figtree favors jazzy arrangements though the music isn’t jazz per se. His material is generally culled from the Broadway songbooks of composers like George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart — “real classic stuff,” as Dunn puts it, including some more obscure numbers that lend themselves to Figtree’s dramatic treatment.
“It’s more theatrical, but it’s not just theater; it doesn’t work as just theater,” she says. “It needs a nice, intimate setting.”