Liz Keiller hands her sheet music to the pianist and clears her throat. Jimmy Guerin plinks out a short intro on his Yamaha electric. The audience gently “ahhs” upon recognizing the melody to “My Funny Valentine” from the 1937 Rodgers and Hart musical, “Babes in Arms.”
Every Monday night, something quite special happens in La Jolla that’s almost entirely off La Jolla’s radar. For six years, between 20 and 30 people from all over San Diego County — and sometimes as far away as Los Angeles and New York — have gathered in a private room at Hennessey’s Tavern for OpenMic Cabaret, an event that has become, for some, as integral to their sanity as it is to their identity.
“I need to sing,” says Keiller, a retired administrative assistant from Mira Mesa. “When I was growing up in New York, the only thing I wanted to do was sing. Of course, my parents told me, ‘No, you have to have to get an education and a job.’ So I did, and now, I’m retired and doing what I originally wanted to do.”
OpenMic Cabaret is much more than a karaoke night for showtunes. It’s even more than a social event. What happens here is more like an emotional-support group for people afflicted with the need to commune with a live audience.
Bryan Bratt, a 32-year-old Uber driver and wedding DJ, has driven from Oceanside specifically to mourn a creative (and possibly romantic) connection that will never be. He says that he and a fellow actor met at an audition for a 2019 production of “Catch Me if You Can” at the Star Theatre in Oceanside.
“I actually think I share a soul with her,” he tells the audience, “and it’s not necessarily a romantic connection. I’ve been trying to sing with her for the last few years, but she really gave me a firm no recently.”
To his unrequited partner, Bratt dedicates a cabaret version of R. Kelly’s “Ignition,” explaining that he “just wants to celebrate turning over a new leaf.” The song features the highly un-cabaret lyric: “crystal poppin’ in the stretch Navigator.”
“Yeah, I guess I didn’t dig too deep into it,” Bratt admits afterward, though no one in the mostly senior audience seemed to notice the drug reference.
Nobody who shares here — even the singers who are less than technically amazing — is greeted by anything less than walloping thunderclaps of applause.
“I think for most of the people who come in, singing is not a casual endeavor, it’s a passion,” explains host Tim Moore. “And the intimate nature of cabaret feeds it, supports it.”
Moore — who launched tonight’s proceedings by crooning Harry Connick Jr.’s “Recipe for Love” — took over OpenMic Cabaret in 2013, holding it in his house on Soledad Mountain Road for two months before securing its current location. (It was started by singer Karen Giorgio in 2009 at the Tango Del Rey rental hall in Pacific Beach.)
Most of tonight’s dozen participants either gave up their dream long ago or, like Keiller, only recently found the courage to pursue it. Warren DeLange, 74, lived out an entire career as a middle-school gym teacher before finally deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps. (Eddie DeLange was a swing-era bandleader and composer who wrote hits for Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole before dying of a heart attack at 45 in 1949 — when his son was just three.)
“When I retired 10 years ago, I would go to piano bars and sing for fun,” Warren said. “Then my wife said, ‘Why don’t you do a show on your dad?’”
Warren, who resembles a clone of his father, now performs 30 shows a year based on the life and music of Eddie DeLange, for senior centers and retirement homes around San Diego. And every Monday, he drives the 90 minutes to La Jolla from Mission Viejo — after stopping first at his Rancho Penasquitos vocal coach for a tune-up.
“It’s just such a rush for me,” he explains.
Emma Atanacio reaches over the piano to halt Guerin smack in the middle of their rendition of “Right on Time” from the 2006 Broadway musical “The Wedding Singer.”
“I forgot the lyrics,” she tells him off-mic without the courage to look up at the audience, which leans forward to get a closer earful of the candid moment.
Atanacio — the youngest person in the room by 15 years — uses these gatherings to polish up audition songs for college musical-theater programs. (She’s shooting for Pace University and Emerson College, though she’s applying to five others.) The San Diego resident says they help her with her stage fright and with working with live accompanists, which she says all auditions require.
“Sometimes, a song will sound different from the recording entirely and you just have to be ready for that,” she explains.
Moore, a 64-year-old semi-retired information-services-company owner, has a fairly major case of the theater bug himself. He founded the San Diego Association of Cabaret Clubs and hosts the quasi-annual San Diego Cabaret Awards (last held at Covo La Jolla in 2018). He says he’s dabbled “on and off” in the theater since his youth in Rochester, New York, last starring in a 2014 Different Stages production of “Wrinkles” by “Luann” comic strip creator Greg Evans.
“I love the intimate, personal nature of cabaret — reaching out to the audience, connecting with them, making them feel like they’re part of my story,” he says.
Moore acknowledges that musical theater in San Diego is hidden from the view of most entertainment-seekers, but says it’s a “super healthy” scene in its small but vibrant way.
“I just wish there were more cabaret in San Diego,” he says.
IF YOU GO: OpenMic Cabaret with Tim Moore runs 7-10 p.m. Mondays at Hennessey’s Tavern, 7811 Herschel Ave. (858) 551-8772.
Other La Jolla Open Mics
Trilogy Sanctuary, 7650 Girard Ave., Suite 400. (858) 633-3893. Music, poetry, performance art and comedy. Each performer gets five minutes. No registration necessary. Free admission. 7-9 p.m. second and fourth Thursdays.
The Comedy Store, 916 Pearl St. (858) 454-9176. Standup sets. 7 p.m. Wednesdays. Call for details.
Beaumont’s Eatery, 5662 La Jolla Blvd. (858) 459-0474. Solo and duo musical performers. Video submission required first.