For Jessica Lee, a founding cast member of MadCabaret, the performing bug bit early. "When I was a child, I was a ham," she says. "I was always doing Grease, and things like that."
Now, at 34, she hams it up regularly with MadCabaret, the colorful, energetic revue of song, dance and comedy that will next take place Friday night at the King Club.
In the show, started in 2004 by now-emigrated singer Joy Dragland, Lee (whose real last name is Stanislawski) performs under the cheerfully bawdy nom de cabaret Klitzy Licious. The name is a modification of her original, even more cheerfully bawdy stage name, Klitzy Normous -- "which I despised," she says. "But it kind of stuck. It completely took off like I never wanted it to."
In the cabaret, Lee -- who by day pursues a master's in social work at UW-Madison -- wears slinky dresses and false eyelashes and belts out fine old R&B numbers, plus disco classics like "Boogie Oogie Oogie." "You either love disco or you hate disco," she says.
She is joined on the stage by a swiftly rotating roster of singers: the cocktail singer Francie Phelps, who also sings Thursdays at the Ivory Room; MadCabaret newcomer Annie Apples; emcee Martin Price, aka Pierce Bottoms; impersonators of celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Billy Idol and Neil Diamond; and guest performers. (A disclosure: I have performed at the cabaret.) All wear elaborate costumes, and they gamely ad lib zingers when they are not singing.
"Debauchery" is how Lee sums up the MadCabaret. "And over-the-top performances."
A Stevens Point native, Lee came to Madison for college. Her first performances here were at open mics. She suffered stage fright.
Three years ago, when Lee was performing club shows, Dragland approached her with an idea: a weekly show at the Slipper Club, the now-shuttered West Main Street nightspot. "I said sure, not even really considering what it would be," says Lee. At first the show -- then called Joy Dragland's Cabaret -- was modest. The cast was small, the accompaniments canned.
"It was a tremendous learning experience," says Lee, "for cultivating my performance skills and finding my comfort level on stage. Now I have no stage fright at all, which is really refreshing."
The show evolved. Cast members were added, and a full band, the Slingbacks. Sen. Russ Feingold started showing up. What started as a lark became a phenomenon. "We had people coming back every week," says Lee.
When the Slipper Club closed last year, the cabaret moved to the King Club, and shifted to a monthly schedule. "It's working out really well," says Lee of the new arrangement. "We can continue doing what we love, but it's also more of a specialty kind of show if we do it every month, rather than every week."
MadCabaret performers always look to be having a marvelous time during their shows. Lee says the pleasure is real. "We have a shitload of fun when we're all on stage together," she says. "We're performing and doing something that's unique, and that we're proud of."