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Villainous cabaret

Thomas Williams opens his second solo show, “Villains,” at Summerstage this weekend with hit pop, soundtrack, and theater songs examining the darker side of characters.

Thomas Williams

The solo cabaret show has a long and storied history. For a young man growing up in the All Souls Unitarian Church choir, it inspired a dream that’s coming true. 

Thomas Williams opens his second solo show, “Villains,” at Summerstage this weekend. He dedicated his first solo show, last year’s “Holding Out for a Hero,” to some icons of the genre: Patti Lupone, Judy Garland, Cass Elliott, Nancy Lamott. He’s been studying every line and every gesture of their performances since he was in high school. But making cabaret his own is a new kind of thrill.

“Cabaret is very personal,” he said. “It’s similar to something like stand-up: it’s just you up there telling a story. You can create a world within this small space, and it’s incredibly vulnerable but incredibly rewarding. When you’re honoring a particular genre, songwriter, or composer, you're sharing something of yourself, because that music has probably meant something to you in your life.”

Seen recently in “Rent,” “Les Miserables,” “Next to Normal,” “Godspell,” and in the title role in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” Williams jokes that he’s already “somewhat larger than life.” He easily fills a room, even in the hubbub of Kilkenny’s, where we met to talk, so holding an audience’s attention through a solo evening of self-selected music and banter isn’t such a challenge.

But it takes careful writing to make the through-line of him effective as a dramatic device, to build a list of songs and some dialogue into a show with an emotional arc.

“These shows have arcs because heroes and villains have arcs, and I love that. I am someone that has to be reined in, as you can no doubt see. I have to think about how much time I spend on this or that aspect, how deep I am getting into it at this stage of the show.”

He credits his producer and mentor Rebecca Ungerman with guiding him through this technical and philosophical part of the process. Onstage, he’ll be joined by music director and singer Christy Stalcup and a three-piece band.

“Villains” includes an eclectic mix of songs, ranging from a tune from a largely unknown original soundtrack to Disney’s “The Emperor’s New Groove” to a hit by Kelly Clarkson (“everybody’s got a dark side; will you love me? can you love mine?”). It incorporates a good deal of theater music, too, because Williams believes theater is more willing than rock or pop to go inside the thought process of a dark mind. 

Williams has an eye for that dark side, in life as well as in himself.

“I joke that I’m one true crime novel away from my fiancé demanding that I get a separate Audible account,” he said.

But he’s keen to share through his show that, while it’s a blast to play the bad guy (“and I love, love, love a costume change”), it’s not all caricature.

“I woke up last Sunday morning intending to continue writing on this show and I wasn’t able to get any writing done because of what happened in Orlando. It has affected the show. There’s real evil. Now there’s a place in the show where I take a step back.”

“‘Holding Out for a Hero’ was talking about aspects of heroism,” he explained, “leading up to realizing that sometimes the hero you’re waiting for is … you.”

In this show, the overarching theme is that darkness is common to us all. 

“I do some speculating on the kind of childhood a villain might have had,” Williams said, “even how that may be connected to my own childhood. The overarching theme of the show is that we all have this darkness. It’s important to recognize that and channel it into something productive. Particularly in relationships, we all have to ask: will you accept me even when I’m at, maybe, not my best?”

Williams is a Gemini—even his name means “twin”—so, he noted, the idea of balancing the light and the dark comes naturally.

“We’re both heroes and villains,” he explained. “We have both in us. It’s what you do with that that makes you more than a guy in a cape or a mask.”


Friday, June 24 and Saturday, June 25, 8:00pm
Robert J. LaFortune Studio, Tulsa PAC, 110 E 2nd St

For more from Alicia, read her article on American Theatre Company's production of Terrence McNally's "Mothers and Sons."

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