Cabaret of dreams

A talk with the folks behind the Chico Cabaret about where they’ve been and where they’re going in their new season

LIFE’S OLD CABARET CHUMS Chico Cabaret founders Sue and Phil Ruttenburg are joined this season by friends and new business partners Marc and Andrea Edson (left to right).

LIFE’S OLD CABARET CHUMS Chico Cabaret founders Sue and Phil Ruttenburg are joined this season by friends and new business partners Marc and Andrea Edson (left to right).

Photo by Tom Angel

It’s possible you might remember being introduced to Phil and Sue Ruttenburg in the pages of this newspaper just a little over a year ago (Jan. 11, 2001). It’s also possible you may know of them or have even met them through their work locally. Sue teaches kindergarten at Biggs Elementary School, and Phil has been working as a licensed therapist with troubled teens and their families.

However, if you attend local theater once in awhile, it is even more likely that you will recognize the Ruttenburgs from their onstage work with various theater groups in Butte County for the past 20 years.

Last year, the News & Review spoke with the Ruttenburgs about their latest project. The couple had then leased the old Trader Pang’s space out at the Almond Orchard shopping center, across from the North Valley Plaza Mall, for the purpose of starting their own theater company and venue, The Chico Cabaret. It’s a year later. And the Cabaret is still a going concern. Moreover, the Ruttenburgs now have new partners in their group and have just signed a three-year lease with the property’s owners. Clearly, they are in for the long haul and are committed to the continued success of their endeavor.

It seemed only natural that we catch up with the Cabaret crew and ask about the first year of the theater and where they see their project going in the future.

The new partners in the Chico Cabaret are Marc and Andrea Edson. Marc is a tall, amiable, 40-something who works out at Clear Communications, selling ad spots for the recently revived Oroville AM station, KEWE. He says he first met the Ruttenburgs in a local production of The Wild Guys. “Theatre on the Ridge,” he says, “that’s where I first met Phil and Sue. It’s been six years of madness ever since!”

“Marc’s got a lot of strengths in theater,” Phil Ruttenburg explains. “Marc’s our tech man. He was instrumental in helping us build the new additions to the theater [tiered seating for better viewing, new carpeting, new lights, better sound, and so forth], he does all the set lighting and sound design. He does all of that stuff that I have no clue about. And Andrea is the volunteer organizer and the house manager. She does all the dessert cooking.”

JITTERBUG JUNKIES Couples jitterbug like mad to the pounding “jungle” drums of a ‘40s swing band, while female singers warble in the background, during the Cabaret’s current hit show, <i>Swingtime Canteen</i>.

Photo by Tom Angel

Edson first approached Ruttenburg about becoming a partner in the theater roughly six months ago. “He said, ‘Let’s just keep it on the burner,'” says Edson about Ruttenburg’s initial reaction. “Finally, in October, we got together, and he said, ‘Yeah, we’d love to have you guys come in as partners.’ I knew Chico needed another theater. It’s been a dream, and it’s come true. I’m extremely happy.”

Andrea Edson is a likable blonde who leaves much of the talking to her partners. “I’m the normal one,” she jokes. “These three are the actors. When they’re onstage doing their creative things, I stay back and get other stuff done.” When asked about her desserts for shows, she says, “I’m trying to create desserts that go with the themes of the shows.”

Sue Ruttenburg points out that for Swingtime Canteen, the ‘40s-set show currently running at the Cabaret, Edson came up with “American apple pie and German chocolate brownies!”

When asked about how the theater fared the previous year, Phil Ruttenburg quickly answers, “It was a very interesting year. We started off with The Emperor’s New Clothes.” That show featured a veritable who’s-who of Chico, everyone from City Councilwoman Coleen Jarvis to local comedian John Bertoli to the News & Review’s editor-in-chief Tom Gascoyne, and sold out both of its performances—an auspicious start for a fledgling theater company.

The next two shows—the comedy The Compleat Works of Shkspr (abridged) and bookend “dramedies” Lone Star and Laundry and Bourbon—were not quite so successful. “I think a lot of people are still afraid of Shakespeare,” says Ruttenburg. “Maybe they thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s way too heady! I’m not going there!'” Ruttenburg explains that once people found out the play was a comedy, “it became a very successful show.” The two Texas-set plays, Ruttenburg admits, drew the theater’s lowest attendance.

“I think what most people are going to remember about the Cabaret’s first year is Fuddy Meers,” Ruttenburg states regarding the Ashland hit comedy. “People loved it! It was new, it was funny, it was different.”

Another standout show was the rock musical Angry Housewives. It is significant because it was Phil Ruttenburg’s first attempt at directing a musical.

NOT JUST KID STUFF The Cabaret’s Theatre On the Inside-Out offers area youth fun—and often powerful—experiences in the dramatic arts.

Photo by Tom Angel

“It was a huge risk!” he admits. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing! We did not leave ourselves the time that we should have allowed for a musical. But the actors really went overtime. They were kind of driving me. We got through it, and it turned out to be really successful.”

Marc Edson adds that the show also “told us that a musical could go over in a venue like that [the Cabaret space].”

Asked about this new season and beyond, Phil Ruttenburg says, “We want to do dramatic work; it’s important to all of us. And at the same time, with all that’s going on in the world these days, we think it’s important to entertain. People need a place to laugh. The value of laughter is especially critical today. I can’t tell you the number of people who have come up to me [after a show] and said that something like this is needed. To escape to the Cabaret is what they need and what they want.”

Sue Ruttenburg says, “We do shows that we like, more than anything else. If you don’t have a passion for it, why put it out? I like the shows we’re planning on doing.”

One of those has Marc Edson particularly excited. The Art of Dining, Edson says, “is about miscommunication.” Phil adds that it’s one of the funniest scripts he’s ever read.

The Cabaret also plans on continuing to host its outstanding children and teen shows via its Theatre On the Inside-Out youth troupe. “We’re done with the Grimms’ fairy tales,” Phil says. “I want to move on and push it forward with some stuff that has not been done around here … entertaining but different.”

All in all, it looks as though the Chico Cabaret is not only here to stay but also to continue entertaining and enlightening.

The current show at The Chico Cabaret is Swingtime Canteen. This fun, song-filled tribute to World War II canteen acts and the music of the ’40s continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday evenings through Feb. 16. For ticket information and dinner reservations call: (530) 895-0245.