As part of their 2015 Summer Cabaret Series, Creative Cauldron welcomed Rachel Zampelli for two nights in her cabaret Anonymous; a raw, poignant, (and dare I say it, hysterical) show about the harrows of addiction, and the comfort of redemption for those lucky few who find recovery. Rachel Zampelli is one of those lucky few, and she uses her story to inspire and fuel one of the best performances I’ve seen all year, by far.
The atmosphere is that of a typical cabaret– warm and inviting, with cozy tables and dim lighting. Unlike the regular glass of water that one would see set aside for the performer, we see that the lip of the stage is littered with assorted cocktail glasses; an homage to the topic at hand. When Rachel steps into the light, it is not a polished performer that we see; wearing a loose cotton nightshirt over plain leggings, and with her hair in a messy bun, she looks painfully exposed– as if she just got out of bed. I wonder if, given her attire, we are about to see her put forth her truest self– and it turns out that I was never more right about anything in my life.
She begins with a slow rendition of Mieka Pauley’s “Marked Man” before proclaiming, “I’m Rachel, and I’m a sex and love addict.” She refers to her adultery as “the icing on the poor choices cake,” and while she speaks, she tears off pieces of red tape and forms a large “A” on her chest. Rachel is not easy on herself by any means– she acknowledges her mistakes, and does not employ excuses or ask for pity. Now, at this point, her cabaret could go two very different ways– one being genius and the other, sufferable. Thankfully, Rachel is a smart girl, and she brings out the one thing that will make this cabaret masterful– humor.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she says as she secures the tape to her chest, “‘A ‘is for ‘Awesome.'”
What follows is a brilliant balance of humor, wit, and emotional depth. Rachel shares stories about her darkest times, centered around the deep-rooted selfishness that comes with addiction (“Even when I was being helpful, I was doing it with a hidden agenda”). Her song list is a lovely mixture of light and dark. She has a fun energy in the playful number “The Burden of Being Wonderful,” by Steel Panther, before transitioning into Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.”
As she sings, she collects tiny little plastic lights that are strewn around the space and puts them into a martini glass, before counting them to 23 and holding up the full glass so that everyone can see it. “This,” she says, “is how many addicts have died since the show began, not counting suicides.” The audience has a few moments to soak in this sober realization before Rachel pulls them out of their trance, cracking quippy lines with her accompanist Gabriel Mangiante and throwing her cue cards carelessly over her shoulder as she zips through her notes. Audience interaction was a great part of this cabaret– not only did she carry on a conversational tone, at one point she even started hand-feeding bite-sized cakes to audience members while singing a song about the power of temptation.
Most of her selected songs are meant as an homage to the people closest to her. Sophie B. Hawkins’ “As I Lay Me Down” is for her mother, and she sings it with a funny little twist– a shared inside joke between them.
Throughout the show her best friend Tracy Olivera accompanied her vocals, and it was apparent from the get-go that these two had a strong bond, which they celebrated with Vance Joy’s “Your Mess is Mine.” Colbie Callait’s “Try” was sung for her recently-departed grandmother, who always loved her for who she was.
These songs, and the stories that accompanied them, all received emotional responses from the audience, but the song meant for her forgiving husband was my favorite– John Hiatt’s “Have A Little Faith in Me.” By the time she began handing out those little lit orbs, singing “I Am Light” by India Arie, cathartic weeping could be heard throughout the audience.
Now, of course, the vocals in this show were exceptional. Zampelli is an accomplished actor with endless accolades and experience, so yes, her songs were wonderful. However, unlike most cabarets, its main strength came not from the singing but from the story itself, and from her very character. Anonymous’ raw honesty, grit, humor, and courage was a delight to experience. I seriously considered cancelling my plans for the next night so that I could see it again (and in hindsight, I regret not doing so).
If the rest of Creative Cauldrons’ 2015 Summer Cabaret Series is half as good as Anonymous, then they are worth checking out!
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission.