Sometimes it seems like Lisa Vroman never left the Bay Area.
The Tony Award-nominated soprano settled in Pasadena with her husband not long after concluding her five-year run as Christine in “Phantom of the Opera,” the record-setting production that defined San Francisco’s booming 1990s musical theater scene.
Still, despite her Southern California digs, she’s almost a ubiquitous presence here, performing regularly at San Francisco Symphony events and annual fundraisers like last month’s Herbst Theatre gala for the Richmond/Ermet Aid Foundation.
“They’re such lovely people — and I got to see Paula West,” Vroman gushed. “Her version of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was amazing.”
Fans of the sumptuously gifted singer might feel like they know Vroman, but she introduces a new musical persona when she makes her San Francisco cabaret debut this weekend, Friday-Saturday, Sept. 15-16, at Feinstein’s at the Nikko. She’ll be exploring some of her signature material, but recalibrated for “a really intimate space.”
“I’m not going to be screaming high notes. Cabaret is about sharing the music, viscerally and intimately. You have to have a reason to sing it, and give them a reason to listen. You have to tell the story of who you are,” she says. “It’s a slightly different banana than concert halls and big theaters.”
Vroman has been one of the top bananas on Broadway since her career-making “Phantom” run, but the classically trained singer has never confined herself to the Great White Way. She’s equally at home singing Kurt Weill’s art songs, Gilbert and Sullivan, and operatic repertoire.
At Feinstein’s, her set list includes classic Broadway fare by Andrew Lloyd Webber, natch, as well as Leonard Bernstein, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, and a few dark horses as well.
While generally doleful about the quality of music on Broadway these days — “It’s so pop-driven and formulaic, I wouldn’t have a career if I was starting out now,” she says — Vroman is eager to champion undiscovered gems like the songs of theater veteran Ed Dixon, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for a Drama Desk Award-nominated musical based on “The Merchant of Venice” with “some incredibly beautiful music in it,” she adds.
Vroman was willing to make the plunge into cabaret at Feinstein’s because she’s backed by her secret weapon, the supremely versatile Joan Cifarelli. Like Vroman, the pianist is fully comfortable in classical, musical theater and jazz settings. “If she wasn’t available I would not agree to do this,” Vroman says.
“She can read every classical piece, and plays jazz as well as Chopin. She’s kind of a monster,” she continues. “Our sensibilities really work together. I took her across the country for a series of concerts, and it was so worth it to have someone who really knows you. My goal during every performance is to see if I can make Joan laugh.”
A longtime faculty member at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg teaching classical and jazz piano, Cifarelli has accompanied Joan Baez, Rita Moreno, Bernadette Peters and Jessye Norman, though she forged a particularly deep bond with Vroman the first time they worked together in 2011.
“We met working at the San Francisco Symphony Christmas show and there was an immediate connection,” Cifarelli recalls. “She can do everything. She can do a classical aria and swing out a standard. I’ve waited a long time to do this. She’s a great storyteller and musician, and that’s what you need to be a great cabaret artist.”
When Vroman is not working with the Kurt Weill Foundation or performing concerts, she can be found giving master classes for aspiring vocalists, workshops that can highlight the generation gap she finds with singers raised on “American Idol.”
“Working with these kids who are so pop-driven, they’re just hollering at you every second,” Vroman says. “I was doing these classes earlier this year and it was our mantra: ‘What are we going to do today? Not holler!’ There are a lot of students who try to sound like this singer or that singer. I say, let’s work on being you.”
Self-actualized and ready to try something new, Vroman promises she won’t holler.
Andrew Gilbert is a freelance writer.
Lisa Vroman: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Sept. 15-16. $35-$70. Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., S.F. (866) 663-1063. www.ticketfly.com