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 members.

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 cabaret music.

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 Overton Wooldridge).

"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 art.

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 bosom.

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 ago.

The show would be a perfect fit for some dark New York bar.

Or, of course, Berlin.


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