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First Nighter: 54 Below Preparing to Heat Up Manhattan Cabaret Scene

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54 Below! It's not the weather report. Or maybe it is, if you're taking the temperature of cabaret in our age. The national awareness of this particular entertainment genre is cool and has been for some time. Nevertheless, in this not necessarily inviting climate, theater producers Tom Viertel, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel and Steven Baruch are spending a bundle opening a new first-rank Manhattan cabaret room that's an autonomous venue -- unlike the Cafe Carlyle and Feinstein's at the Regency, both in hotels, as was the now shuttered Oak Room in the Algonquin.

Well, okay, 54 Below is in the building where Studio 54 is located but isn't at all associated with the Roundabout Theatre Company in charge upstairs. Here, the room's architect is Richard Lewis. Its interior-designed is by the amazing John Lee Beatty, who's always obsessive about architectural detail and wants this intimate space with its dark wood finishing, pressed-tin ceilings and pseudo-flocked wall coverings, to look like a Jazz Age destination. He's fashioning so much to evoke a speakeasy that, along with many pictures of '20s showgirls, he's hung a portrait of the era's favorite hostess, Texas "Hello, Suckers!" Guinan.

(Other Broadway stalwarts associated with it are two more Tony award-winners, lighting designer Ken Billington and sound designer Peter Hylenski.)

The boite -- which has the local cabaret community crossing its collective fingers for success -- opens this week (June 5, to be exact) with Patti LuPone headlining a show about her relationship with New York City since she first arrived from Longport, Long Island and proceeded to turn herself into the hotsy-totsy Broadway name she is. She's presenting an all-new act featuring a Kurt Weill medley and including encores during which she'll sing requests. "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," anyone? "As If We Never Said Goodbye," anyone?

LuPone is directed by her longtime collaborator Scott Wittman, perhaps best known these days as the Hairspray and Smash lyricist (Marc Shaiman, his composing partner) and as downtown's current Jukebox Jackie purveyor. He also happens to be the 54 Below creative consultant and says that in the vaunted capacity, he's there "to oversee booking" and regards himself as the on-site "fairy godfather." Phil Geoffrey Bond, who has supervised cabaret-oriented matters at the Laurie Beechman and The Duplex in his past, is billed as programming director.

Wittman's a choice one to slot into the position he's filling. To hear him recount it as he sits in a 54 Below banquette amid workmen -- and Beatty -- laboring towards the first night, he's been involved with cabaret since 1976. Among the many other people he's helmed in the intervening 36 years, he numbers two-time Tony-winning Christine Ebersole. As with LuPone, he continues to coordinate Ebersole's every intimate-room appearance.

Asked why he cherishes usually fourth-wall-less cabaret as much as he does -- in contrast to the legitimate stage, about which he knows plenty -- he says, "You get to know a person on another level. They're letting you in. They're telling you secrets." Pressed to say whether the experience is better, worse or the same as attending a within-the-proscenium item, he responds jokingly, "It's a step forward, baby!"

Co-developer Viertel has recently said about the new hot-spot plunked in the middle of Theaterland, "We want it to be home for virtually anyone on Broadway and the people who love Broadway." He went on to say, "The bigger rooms that we might compete with, the Café Carlyle and Feinstein's, are on the East Side. We aim to be part of the world of Broadway."

Wittman, agreeing it's so, adds that part of his mission is to check out what's happening downtown. He'll tap performers like Justin Vivian Bond (now billing himself as MX Justin Vivian Bond), whom he believes need to be championed increasingly uptown as well. Moreover, Mondays are being given over to established songwriters like David Zippel and outstanding newer ones like Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan. They'll sing their own ditties or have them sung by B'way warblers along the impressive lines of Annie Golden and Julia Murney.

But Viertel isn't just whistling "Hello, Dolly!" when he pushes the Broadway artist tie-in. Following LuPone are abundant Main Stem names, some of whom do have cabaret credits -- Ben Vereen, Rebecca Luker, Brian d'Arcy James, Andrea McArdle, Lea DeLaria, Andrea Martin, Victor Garber and Jackie Hoffman, who actually bowed in the room at its June 3 soft opening.

And that's just some of the summer line-up. Already announced for the fall are Leslie Uggams, Laura Benanti, Liz Callaway, Sheri René Scott and Christine Andreas. Others expected in the room are Linda Lavin, Megan Hilty, Michael Arden, Eden Espinosa and Tony DeSare.

Besides which there's The Green Room, an after-theater cocktail lounge, where the Sean Harkness Trio and others will play. Lined up for Sunday jazz brunches are Natalie Douglas, Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano, Alysha Umphress and Marcus Paul James.

Not so incidentally, the 54 Below nabobs have noticed the resistance many would-be cabaret-goers show toward perceived high prices. They're adjusting accordingly. While it'll cost $60 to $70 with a $30 minimum to take in LuPone, the songwriter New Mondays will range from $18 to $10 with a two-drink minimum.

The economic aspect alone could mean bigger and noticeably younger audiences will learn how potent and immediate cabaret entertainment is, and that's only to the good.