With fresh grant money in its lacy pocket, local cabaret troupe Alacartoona prepares to take it to the next level
I was hoping she wouldn’t come over.
Interaction with the performer was my biggest fear recently as I
watched Ruby Falls wind her way through the Jardine’s dining
room, ruffling hair and thrusting her chest in the faces of audience
I knew my gender afforded me a little added security against getting
singled out by the singer for Alacartoona. But this is a cabaret
act that used to gig regularly at Bar Natasha. When Ruby’s lipsticked
male bandmate Providence Forge prowled the room, he sidled up to
the men in the crowd, too. Just pour out a drink or two/Soon enough
I’ll be in love with you, he cooed seductively.
Most of the time, when a performance elicits a little discomfort,
it’s a sign that, on some level, the artists are accomplishing what
they set out to do — shock, inspire, or just instill themselves
in your memory.
Alacartoona has the latter down pat. I haven’t seen another local
act that combines a musical-theater vibe with elements of burlesque and
An older gentleman — there were a lot of them at Jardine’s
— told me that he happened to catch the band performing five
years ago and was blown away. He’s now a regular at Alacartoona’s
monthly Jardine’s gig.
I can understand the appeal. It has a lot to do with sex.
Ruby Falls’ alter ego, Erin McGrane, whom The Pitch
named Best Sexy Musician in 2005, remains one of the hottest little
things on the Kansas City music scene.
As the pseudo-homosexual bad-boy Forge, bassist Christian
Hankel is also eye-catching.
Both have huge voices, which they use for thoughtful spoken-word
pieces as well as song. Hankel’s rough baritone blends exceptionally
well with McGrane’s sweet alto on songs like the slightly twangy “The
Honey Won’t Soothe the Sting.”
McGrane and Hankel are so bold that if the other two members’ mostly
wordless contributions didn’t provide the backbone of the music, you
could almost fail to notice them: drummer Gregg Jackson (as
Bachelor Calwood) and accordion player Kyle Dahlquist (as
“Theatrical music” is the term that Hankel — sans lipstick,
with wedding ring — tosses out to describe his band over lunch a
few days later in the Crossroads District.
“This troupe of performers has known each other a long time,”
McGrane adds mysteriously.
She’s not talking about her actual bandmates — she’s talking
about their personas. This helps me understand why the stage show can
come off as a bit overacted. Alacartoona is a group of performers
playing characters at a specific intersection of theater, music and
If the shtick seems old-timey — Providence Forge’s fedora and
suspenders, Ruby’s flapper haircut and the group’s Euro-jazzy songs
— that’s because the concept is influenced by a period in history
that fascinates the band. During Germany’s Weimar Republic, from 1919
to 1933, McGrane says cabarets became hotbeds of political thought,
music and theater.
Six years ago, the theater was the original destination for
Alacartoona. But what began as an idea for a one-off show turned into a
band that has been playing around KC ever since.
Yet, in all those years, despite releasing a couple of CDs, Hankel
doesn’t feel that there’s anything he can hand someone that really
captures the essence of the project.
Indeed, the band’s 2004 release, Songs From the Show, is a
little like listening to the soundtrack of a musical. Everything sounds
like it’s supposed to, but the effect isn’t the same without Ruby
flashing her gartered thighs and smothering guys’ faces in her
By way of a DVD being filmed this week, the band hopes finally to
translate its multilayered, high-concept, sexually charged live show
into a permanent and portable form.
The Night Is the Mirror project has three components. The
title element is a stylized live performance, featuring handpicked
audience members, and incorporating dialogue and off-stage scenes that
will shed a little light on the shadowy back story of Alacartoona’s
cast. “We don’t want to answer every question about our characters,”
McGrane says, “but we want to stimulate thought.”
The second part of Night Is the Mirror is an actual live
performance at 8 p.m. Friday at the Off Center Theatre at Crown Center.
(Tickets to the show are available for $10 in advance and $15 at the
door; call the box office at 816-274-8444.) Finally, in keeping with
its theatrical roots, the band is also including an original one-act
play, The Poor Slob, on the DVD.
The band got $2,000 for the project last year when it received an
ArtsKC Fund Inspiration Award from the Arts Council of Metropolitan
Kansas City. McGrane says the grants are supposed to help artists take
their work to the next level.
For Alacartoona, playing rooms beyond Kansas City is the goal.
Hankel says the band has been in contact with a booking agent in
Europe, and half of Alacartoona performed in China a couple of years
The show would be a perfect fit for some dark New York bar.
Or, of course, Berlin.