Take a Crooked Path to Christmas with a ‘grown-up’ cabaret at the James

What the Holidays Mean to Me: A Holiday Cabaret for Grown-Ups

Thursday, Dec. 16 through Sunday, Dec. 19, The James Theater, $10

Chris Okiishi (center) at a rehearsal of Crooked Path Theatre’s Christmas cabaret. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

As the spirit of the holiday season settles onto our region, Chris Okiishi and Patrick DuLaney are revving the engine on their production company, Crooked Path Theatre, to explore and celebrate with an in-person holiday cabaret featuring a wild array of local talent. It’s set to run for four nights at the newly designed James Theater, a venue housed in the space vacated by Riverside Theatre on Gilbert Street in Iowa City.

Although the James, which Leslie and Mark Nolte are establishing with a focus on artist experience, won’t formally be open until February, they’re planning a soft open this weekend for What the Holidays Mean to Me: A Holiday Cabaret for Grown-Ups. Tickets are $10. The event is music directed by Jason Sifford, and features 20 holiday songs and monologues, “from wistful to wicked, from heartwarming to heart thumping, from bitter to sweet and everything in between,” Okiishi said in an email.

The cabaret performers include Carrie Houchins-Witt, Robyn Calhoun, Lauren Baker, Jessica Murillo, Chastity Dillard, Kristen DeGrazia, Caroline Price, Kristy Hartsgrove-Mooers, Anthony Hendricks, Mic Evans, Michael Penick, Ellen Stevenson, Rebecca Fields-Moffitt, Rob Kemp, Miriam Thoe and Will Adams.

Empathy for the piano player during a rehearsal of ‘What the Holidays Mean to Me: A Holiday Cabaret for Grown-Ups.’ — Sid Peterson/Little Village

“It’s still novel to be on a live stage!” Okiishi said. He’s performed live just twice since the start of the pandemic, both times this year with SPT Theatre in Cedar Rapids, as part of their Tales From the Writing Room series. “We did so much video work over the past two years, it’s terrific to get the feedback from a live audience!”

Okiishi has “a soft spot” for the whole range of holiday tunes, he said, though he counts among his favorites “the sad/lonely songs in minor keys.” He answered a few questions for Little Village about the cabaret, which he will be both emceeing and performing in, the holidays and the current state of theater in our region.

What lessons have you taken from virtual events that have informed or even improved how you produce in-person events now?

That is a good question that I think we are just barely beginning to understand. We certainly learned new skills — computer, video, audio — but how those will be used in live theater remains to be seen. I think for me the greatest message has been an even greater appreciation for the essential collaboration between performers and the audience. The back and forth of energy and communication — that is where the magic and power of live theater comes from.

Why do you think cabarets are such a popular format around the holidays?

I think people are in the mood to be entertained and the cabaret format exists purely for that purpose. Also, from a performer standpoint, it means a shorter rehearsal schedule in a busy season and a chance to hone some skills, especially direct communication with an audience, that we don’t get from narrative theater. The key point of cabaret is that there is no fourth wall and we talk right to the people in the room at the same time — we are all having the same shared experience.

A joyful moment during a rehearsal of ‘What the Holidays Mean to Me: A Holiday Cabaret for Grown-Ups.’ — Sid Peterson/Little Village

How do you feel about serving as the soft open for the new James Theater? How has your experience been, and how do you think this new venue will make its mark in the region?

We are so excited to be invited in at such an early time. We are thrilled to be part of launching this new space in a building with such great artistic history. The Nolte family and the James pros have gone above and beyond to make us welcome and we cannot wait for an audience to join us. It will still be a little raw, but the potential is enormous!

What are your hopes for the arts in Iowa as we head into a new year?

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My first thought is that we hope that all will return to “normal,” but I don’t think that is enough. I hope we go beyond normal. I hope the promises made to revolutionize diversity, inclusion and justice at all levels of theater bear tangible fruit. I hope audiences follow new directions and give new playwrights, performers and companies a chance. And I hope we as a whole nation come together to make real and permanent progress against illness and hopelessness.

What do the holidays mean to you?

So much. A time to be with family. A time to think of community. A time to be grateful. A time to wonder and hope and plan for better tomorrows. And a time to get some rest.