With record-breaking heat this summer, it feels like we skipped the sizzle and went straight to being baked. But over the next couple of weekends you just might find some sizzle—and absolutely no fizzle—at the Skyline Country Club. That would be courtesy of the Invisible Theatre and their 28-year tradition of offering us diehard desert rats their Sizzling Summer Sounds series, a collection of cabaret-style performances by some very impressive talents.
The shows have been housed in several venues over the years, like the Doubletree and the Arizona Inn. But the series has perhaps found its best home yet at Skyline Country Club. All the artists I spoke with love performing there. And patrons can do a show, or dinner and a show, or even stay overnight and check out the next evening's shows.
The series opens with Pure Imagination, featuring Katherine Byrnes and Jack Neubeck, with Daniel "Sly" Slipetsky on piano. Byrnes is a native Tucsonan and Neubeck has been here 31 years. Both are well-travelled performers. Neubeck fled a Broadway musical career in New York—he was in the original cast of La Cage and Evita—when his three-year-old daughter cursed at a driver who cut them off during a commute. "New York is really for the young and stupid or the filthy rich. My wife and I were neither and when we heard our daughter's 'comment' about a rude driver, we looked at each other and said, we've got to get out of here." He has found plenty of work here, including being a regular on the Invisible Theatre stage.
Byrnes has had her New York experience as well. One of her steady gigs there was as a wedding singer, and she kept busy with three different planners booking her services. They were pretty standard affairs, she says, but she did sing at Ursula Andress' fourth wedding. "Or maybe it was her third. I forget. It was a beautiful wedding, though, off the coast of Maine."
Byrnes began her career as a 13-year-old with the Gaslight Theatre. She still is part of the Gaslight family, serving now as their choreographer and production manager. She also performs her vocal shows both at the east side location for their Monday night concert series as well as at the new Gaslight Music Hall in Oro Valley. She also stages all their musical revues at the Oro Valley locations. She has toured China twice, and all across Europe with Blue Note recording artist Amos Lee. She also has her own band, Sweet Ghosts.
There's quite an age difference in the duo, although they have known each other for years. They both worked at the old Hidden Valley Inn, which used to do Western-themed dinner theater shows. "This was about 20 years ago," Neubeck says. "Katherine was very young—13 or 14. It's been amazing to watch her grow in so many ways as an artist. She's terrifically talented."
The show features the work of Leslie Bricusse. Showcasing the work of this prolific songwriter and lyricist is something Neubeck's been keen to do—and although many know his songs, few recognize his name. Bricusse has been nominated for five Tony Awards and eight Academy Awards, and was often paired with greats like Anthony Newley, John Williams and Henry Mancini. Sammy Davis, Jr. found a hit with his "What Kind of Fool Am I?" As composer and lyricist, Bricusse scored the film flop, Doctor Dolittle (1967), but he received an Oscar for Best Original Song for the film's "Talk to the Animals." "Goldfinger" and "You Only Live Twice" are also his, and he scored Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), also with Newley, for which they received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song Score.
"The sheer volume of his work is almost unbelievable. I'm so excited about this show. I think it may be just about my favorite."
This trio will do another show the next week, "I Love Paris," appropriately enough on Bastille Day.
There could hardly be a SSS run without the husband and wife team of trombonist (and sometimes pianist) Rob Boone and Christina Vivona, who is one of only a few in the country who plays jazz harp. They will be joined by Ray Templin on piano and percussion for "In the Limelight."
Templin is a relative newcomer to Tucson, having found his way here 11 years ago from Southern California and Disneyland. "It was the longest summer job I've ever had," he jokes about his 26-year career there. A self-taught musician from Chicago, some friends talked him into checking out the theme park when he was visiting the area with plans to be an actor, and after a very brief audition, he had himself a job. "I sat down at the piano on Main Street right at the entrance and played a couple of measures and this guy comes over and closes the cover of the keys on my hands and says, when can you start?"
Templin also did a lot of voice-over work and spent three seasons doing the Andy Griffith series Matlock. When he joined some friends doing concerts in Phoenix and Tucson, he was amazed at the western landscape. "This looked like my bedspread as a kid, cowboys and Indians and saguaros." L.A. had become too big and expensive and the kids were grown, so he and his wife moved here. He thought he was retired but there turned out to be plenty of opportunty here, including working with the Wildcat Jazz Band and doing voiceovers for things like the Muppets shows, "which you can do over the internet now," he explained. "I've been very fortunate."
Both Neubeck and Byrnes love performing at Skyline Country Club, not only because of its magnificent view, but because of the intimacy of the cabaret style. Byrnes says she wants folks to know "how magical this series is. It's like you're not even in Tucson, and the audience can have almost a one-on-one experience with the artists."
The series includes eight performances of six different shows running through July 16.