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‘KWTD’: Keith Thompson says The Composers Showcase is happily at home at Cabaret Jazz

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Christopher DeVargas

Keith Thompson, musical director for “Jersey Boys,” sings an opening number as he hosts The Composers Showcase at Cabaret Jazz in The Smith Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012.

Kats With the Dish

Composer's Showcase

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Kats and the Dish talk to Keith Thompson, musical conductor of "Jersey Boys," about the upcoming Composer's Showcase.

Composers Showcase at Cabaret Jazz

Keith Thompson, musical director for Launch slideshow »

Keith Thompson’s official task with “Jersey Boys” at Paris Las Vegas is as the show’s conductor and music director. But here’s another role we’d like to bestow on the esteemed composer, pianist and arranger:

Emcee of Everything.

Thompson is the catty, pithy, swift-witted master of ceremonies at The Composers Showcase at The Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz. Along with “Le Reve -- The Dream” conductor Michael Brennan, Thompson launched the Showcase in the spring of 2006 at the since-closed Suede restaurant and bar, sharing the same strip mall as Double Down Saloon on Paradise Road and E. Naples Drive (that region owns a familiar nickname).

Over the years, the Showcase has bounded around town, from Suede to The Liberace Museum to Creative Studios and Garfield’s, before landing in what appears to be a permanent residence at The Smith Center.

Thompson has organized, performed in and emceed every Showcase in the show’s seven-year history. The next presentation is 10:30 p.m. Wednesday at Cab Jazz. Making his Showcase debut is “Million Dollar Quartet” cast member Martin Kaye (who portrays Jerry Lee Lewis in the Harrah’s production); click here to find the full list of the talented show people scheduled to appear.

Last week, Thompson joined Tricia McCrone and me for an episode of “Kats With the Dish” that aired Friday morning on KUNV 91.5-FM. Samples from the show:

On how The Composers Showcase got started: “The Composers Showcase was the brainchild of Michael Brennan, who is the musical director over at ‘Le Reve,’ and myself about seven years ago. We decided that there were enough writers here in town that it would be an interesting thing if we all got together just for an evening and did our own music and showcased it for our friends. It was really more kind of like a party. It was so well received and so interesting, we decided to do it again the next month and the month after that. That is literally how it started.

“Eventually, Michael got too busy to bother with it, and I just kind of took it over. I just decided I wanted to keep it going, and I’ve kept it going seven years. … Suede was really small, about 60 people, max. There was a little stage and a little piano. I used to have to get a phone book to put on the piano bench because it was broken.”

On having the show at The Smith Center: “The Smith Center opened, and they invited us to do it there, at Cabaret Jazz. It’s just kind of a magical fit for the idea. It’s such a beautiful room, and it’s larger than we’ve ever had before. I’m just thrilled.

“For three years, we were at The Liberace Museum in that cute little cabaret room. … Paul Beard from The Smith Center had started coming to the showcases. He came to the very last one we did at Liberace, and he said, ‘If the Smith Center were open, we would put this right in right away.’ But there was still another year and a half before they were going to open, so we thought we would just kind of float along.”

On performing in and hosting the showcases from the beginning: “I’m a bit of a showman, always have been. I was kind of new at hosting. I had never really done that. I’m always behind the piano doing my thing, so it was interesting to stand up and talk to people and actually think of something funny I could say to make people at ease.

“I used to actually do a bit of that (sing and perform on his own), but then I had a director tell me, ‘Don’t ever do that in public again.’ There are a lot of people who perform, sing and dance a lot better than I do. The best of the things that I do is music -- is writing, arranging and conducting. I would consider that to be where my expertise level is -- it’s what I’m educated in.

“At some point, I had to kind of narrow it down a little bit and focus on my career the things I would be hired to do. So that’s why I make my living as a conductor or musical director. The rest I’m able to do for fun.”

On how he determines who goes onstage: “I am specific about the fact that we are not an open mic. I realize that over the course of time, our audiences have come to expect a certain caliber of show. Especially if we are going to be charging $20 at The Smith, I want to make sure that what gets on the stage is the best possible show. That means being concerned about the variety we have in the course of an evening. I have to make sure I’ve not booked too much jazz or too much classical. I need a nice mix of some comedy, some theater, so that everyone has the experience each time of the full gambit. That way if you don’t like the number they are doing now, wait five minutes, and the next song up may be your cup of tea.

“Rather than turn people down, I try to postpone. Recently (former 'Jersey Boys' cast member) Erich Bergen was back in town on tour that week (with 'Anything Goes' at The Smith Center), so I needed to make sure to get him in on that particular date. There are other people who can float. As long as they get a spot, they are encouraged and are happy. I am not booking maybe two months ahead.”

On what kind of capacity they need to make it worthwhile: “They let us sell 244 (seats) and at $20 a head, we need to hit 100 paying customers each time to break even for The Smith. We have not failed yet. There was one time where we were right at 101. We opened strong, then we had a little bit of a dip after we opened, then we ramped up. The last three times we did it, the box office report was sold out.”

On inviting established headliners to the Showcase: “There is always an invitation for those who are already successful. If you look at it, Clint (Holmes) comes in often and performs, Taylor Hicks (Paris Las Vegas), who will be coming back, Frankie Moreno (Stratosphere), Michael Cavanaugh (who starred in 'Movin’ Out' on Broadway) and Esteban (LVH) were all in the show. Since we’ve been at The Smith, we’ve had a good piece of luck enticing those higher up the food chain to come and play with us.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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