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Oregon Cabaret Theatre survives death of founder, thrives under new owners

The Rogue Valley is certainly no arts and entertainment desert.

The Craterian Theater, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Britt Festival, Oregon Cabaret Theatre, and Camelot Theater showcase some of the best live performances on the West Coast.

The Oregon Cabaret Theatre will celebrate its 35th season in 2020. And even though the past decade’s periods of wildfire smoke were a challenge for the community at large, the continued success of the Cabaret and other Rogue Valley performing arts venues speaks to their vitality and resilience.

Five years ago, the death of Cabaret founding artistic director Jim Giancarlo could have been a major disruption for the theater. However, new owners Valerie Rachelle and Rick Robinson — building on Giancarlo’s legacy and adding innovations of their own — celebrated a record-setting 37,500 in ticket sales for 2019. The last show of the season, “Miracle on 34th Street,” quickly sold out.

Rachelle is a veteran theater director and choreographer. Robinson, her husband, is a producer, designer, playwright, actor, screenwriter and film director. They are founding producers of Lucid by Proxy, a Los Angeles theater company.

The beginning

Rachelle met Giancarlo in 2005.

“I became a friend of Jim’s when I was casting director for PCPA Conservatory Theatre in Santa Maria, (California),” she said. “He would audition students there.”

She even had a stint at the Cabaret, directing “The Winter Wonderettes” musical in 2012. It was then she learned that Giancarlo was thinking about retiring from his full-time job on the faculty at SOU.

“I joked, if you ever need somebody to take over,” she said. “Then in 2014, a mutual friend called and said Jim really does want to retire. I asked Rick if he was interested in taking it on.” Happy with his job, he said, well, maybe in 2016.

A short time later, when Rachelle was in Utah directing “Les Miserables,” Robinson called her with the news that he had been laid off.

That changed everything.

“Plus, I was starting to sense that Valerie was done doing that she did,” Robinson said.

Rachelle came to Ashland in June of 2014 to scope out the city and check out the opportunity.

“I saw ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’,’ loved the space, talked to Jim and the accountants, and thought, ‘we’ve got to do this,’ ” she said. “We went from pumping the brakes to aggressively pursuing it.”

Stunning news

The negotiations proceeded, Giancarlo accepted their offer July 30, and a closing was scheduled for the following week. But Giancarlo suddenly became ill and died before the signing date. Rachelle got a call from Cabaret stage manager Kathleen Mahoney with the shocking news.

Less than 24 hours later, Giancarlo’s brother Paul called.

“He asked us how soon we could get there,” Rachelle said. “Nobody was running the theater. Paul had seen the offer.”

Two weeks later, on Oct. 1, they were in Ashland and closed the deal with Giancarlo’s family. Rachelle immediately took over running the theater while Robinson shuttled back and forth to California.

They signed a 10-year lease on the building with owner Craig Hudson. Built in 1911, it was Ashland’s First Baptist Church. After it had been vacant and derelict for years, Hudson purchased it in 1982 and began a restoration project. The upper levels were transformed into what became the Cabaret and its kitchen.

The lower level, along with a multitiered garden, is the home of Hearsay Restaurant.

In addition to taking over the reins of the theater on short notice, the couple also had to rush to plan the program for the next season.

“We pretty much settled on the 2015 season in the car,” Robinson said.

They had discussed their ideas with Hudson and wondered if mounting shows with larger casts would be wise. Most of Giancarlo’s shows were limited to about a half-dozen actors or fewer.

Hudson told them they should do the shows they’re dreaming about. “It will show the people what you’re up to,” he said.

It was good advice. They’ve done shows with casts of up to 14. The larger shows have been some of the most successful.

Ticket sales soar

There has been growth on several fronts at the 136-seat Cabaret. Since they took over, the staff of five has grown to nine, and ticket sales are up a hefty 50%.

They introduced a one-night-only series in 2015, featuring live music and cabaret performances. There were six performances in their first season. In 2020 there will be nine.

While the Cabaret does not feature America’s top-tier talent, their casts are professional, skilled and versatile. They hire actors locally as well as from around the country. Most of the non-local talent comes from casting sessions in New York City. And when it comes to musicals, the Cabaret’s dancers and singers have impressed playgoers.

For their first year as owners, Rachelle went to New York to audition prospects. Now, Cabaret casting director Jonathon Hoover makes the trip.

“For 2020, 40% of our actors will come from New York, 40% locally and 20% from other connections,” Rachelle said.

“We had 2,500 actors submit applications for 2020, saw 600 in person, including 200 locally, and cast 48.”

They continue to offer the dinner theater experience that Giancarlo established. Patrons can choose to dine before the performance or come just for the show, in which case they still can order appetizers and, for the interval, desserts and drinks.

Many people think the food comes from Hearsay Restaurant, on the lower level. However, the Cabaret has always had its own kitchen, and the dinners are well reviewed.

The Dick Hay Pie

“We give our chef, Robert Aros, free rein, but we insist there always be a Dick Hay Pie on the menu,” Rachelle said, smiling. The popular dessert is a rich mash-up of layered ice cream, peanut butter filling, and chocolate ganache in a chocolate cookie crust. Hay is the venerable OSF designer of theaters and productions.

The new owners added preperformance live music to the Cabaret experience. They feel it livens up the scene and adds energy to the dinner hour.

Robinson has had several of his own plays produced in Los Angeles. He also has created award-winning online series and designed commercial websites and online projects.

“Every year we do one of Rick’s plays,” Rachelle said. “Poirot: Murder on the Links” is one of his projects on the 2020 schedule. Based on Agatha Christie’s mystery, “Murder on the Links,” the new adaptation of the classic novel will be workshopped next spring with director Todd Nielson and adapter Robinson, making its world premiere at the Cabaret in the fall.

During the Christmas/Hanukkah season, a holiday-themed production has been a Cabaret tradition.

“One year we strayed from that,” said Rachelle, “with a production of the musical, ‘She Loves Me.’ Ticket sales showed that people wanted a holiday show. We definitely heard about it.”

Both Rachelle and Robinson occasionally do work outside the Cabaret. Rachelle freelance directs five to seven productions a year, and Robinson directs occasionally at the Collaborative Theatre Project in Medford.

But these days it’s the Cabaret that’s first and foremost in their lives.

“It’s great being able to work with my husband in a business we both love,” Rachelle said. “And Ashland is a really good place to live and raise our daughter.”

Robinson is proud of the growing attendance and quality of productions at the Cabaret.

“The art that we’ve made protects Jim’s legacy,” he said.

What do they hope for the future?

“I want to get into Sunset Magazine,” Rachelle said.

“My goal is to make the Cabaret the finest dinner theater in America,” Robinson added.

Filling seats six nights a week, 52 weeks a year, selling out many shows, garnering stellar reviews, and offering gourmet dinners to boot is a good start.

Jim Flint is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Cabaret co-owner, director and choreographer Valerie Rachelle treads the boards occasionally. Here she performs with Galloway Stevens in the 2019 production of “Sweeney Todd.” Bryon Devore photo