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Potluck of Cabaret

Invisible Theatre takes to the Arizona Inn for its annual July music performance series

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Invisible Theatre calls its annual July cabaret series "Sizzling Summer Sounds," but the first-weekend headliner thinks of her song list less as something to sizzle in a skillet than as a big, burbling stew.

"I've got something old, something new, some show tunes, some Ray Charles and some hot blues," says bigger-than-life singer Sandra Reaves-Phillips. "I'm throwing it all in the pot and stirrin' it up."

Reaves-Phillips has performed in Tucson a couple of times before thanks to Invisible Theatre, and she's grateful for the return engagement. "I'm just honored that anybody still calls my number," says the singer-actress, who's been performing longer than the 35 years Invisible Theatre has existed. "This business is so youth-oriented, I don't even get calls for mature roles; they're using women in their 30s and 40s."

Not that she's complaining much. She's starred as Mama Younger in national and international tours of the musical Raisin; she's appeared in several other Broadway and Off-Broadway shows; she had a part in Clint Eastwood's jazz movie Round Midnight; she took her gospel group to the Vatican for a performance before a crowd of 8,000 and a private audience with the Pope, and she sang the title song in the movie Lean on Me, where Morgan Freeman plays a tough principal cleaning up a rough school.

A fine work history, so with sweet young things flouncing through all the good roles on Broadway these days, Reaves-Phillips is spending more time touring with her own cabaret shows.

Reaves-Phillips, one of whose CDs is aptly titled Bold and Brassy, describes herself as "an earth singer. It's dirty. Pick up a handful of soul; put some sweat in it and get muddy, and that's me, baby."

Her relationship with dirt--literally soil--goes way back. The daughter of a 14-year-old single mother rumored to have been impregnated by a traveling, married preacher, young Sandra went on the road with her grandmother at age 11, doing seasonal agricultural work, moving north in summer, south in winter, singing in the fields and in church on Sunday. After four years of that, she settled for a while with her mother in Brooklyn, who insisted she finish high school. She dropped out and got married in her senior year, but already since she was 15 (she was big for her age), she'd been singing four nights a week in New York clubs.

The career progressed well, with some recordings and lots of singing. She won her first acting audition after she finished drama school in the 1970s (she played an alcoholic blues singer). She appeared in a play with Bette Davis, and in the movie The Happy Hooker with Lynn Redgrave. ("They should've called it The Tacky Hooker," she says.)

Not everything has been quite perfect, though (lesson: Don't perform in Alabama the same night they're opening a Kmart), and the marriage didn't work out. Today, she talks about the tough times and the good times between numbers and through the songs themselves in her solo act.

"Whereas a few years ago, I'd hide behind the music, with all these gowns and my butt hanging out and everything, these were just cover-ups," she says. "Only later in my career did I open up the closet door and let the skeletons walk out. Now they say, 'Oh, she's a great storyteller,' but all I'm telling is the truth."

Reaves-Phillips says doing big stage shows keeps her from getting complacent, but she loves cabaret because the close contact with the audience gives her goosebumps.

"Sandra's show is different from what anyone has seen her do here before," says Invisible Theatre's Susan Claassen. "It's got the same heart and soul, but it's more intimate; it premiered in a lovely little showroom in San Francisco called the Empire Plush Room."

Claassen strives to reproduce the atmosphere of venues like that as she takes over the Arizona Inn for 22 performances of 12 shows over the course of three weeks. "Sizzling Summer Sounds" opens July 12-13 with locals Jeff Haskell, Jack Neubeck and recent UA grad Katherine Byrnes in a program called "High Standards." July 14--Bastille Day--brings French jazz and cabaret with Neubeck, Betty Craig and instrumentalists including two classical cats, pianist Sanda Schuldmann and cellist Harry Clark, accompanying all the songs and taking center stage in Claude Bolling's Suite for Cello and Jazz Piano.

The Original Wildcat Jass Band from the UA plays 1920s jazz on July 15. Reaves-Phillips takes over July 16-17, and local favorite Liz McMahon offers a tribute to Rosemary Clooney July 19-20. Laurel Massé, a founding member of Manhattan Transfer, has the spotlight July 21-22.

Steven Brinberg, the nation's leading Barbra Streisand impressionist, holds forth July 23-24, whereupon Joe Bourne and the Gary Moran Trio present a tribute to Nat King Cole July 26-27. McMahon, Lisa Otey and Elise Ackermann pay homage to the queens of country July 28 in a program that's already sold out, and Otey does a solo show of requests July 29 (e-mail your requests to lisa@owlsnestmusic.com). Cabaret star Steve Ross sings Fred Astaire standards July 30-31, and jazz flugelhornist Dmitri Matheny comes home with his group for a special CD release concert Aug. 1.

Reaves-Phillips could be summing up the whole series when she says of her show, "It's like I'm putting on a potluck party, and everybody's invited to come. You don't need to bring anything; just bring your spirit, bring your soul, and let's have a good time."

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