Cabaret Kiki and the Bivins Brothers head for the Windy City 

Tale of Two Kikis

Cabaret Kiki
May 14-17, 10 p.m.
$20-$30
Theatre 99
280 Meeting St.
(843) 853-6687
www.etix.com

This is the last time Cabaret Kiki will perform in Charleston.

It's a sentence whose overtones of finality you don't like to read.

Sadly, it's true.

Matt and Evan Bivins, the creators of the popular rock 'n' roll variety show, are leaving for Chicago this summer. Kiki's final engagement starts Wednesday. It'll be the last you'll hear from this singular blend of the spirits of Ziggy Stardust, Devo, New York Dolls, Liza Minelli, Saturday Night Live, and David Lynch.

At least for now.

Still in their early 30s, Matt and Evan have accomplished more than most could hope for. They moved to Charleston 16 years ago, formed a band called Jump, Little Children, and nearly pierced the membrane of national celebrity.

In the meantime, they have cultivated a heaping ton of local and regional acclaim. Even now, a few years after Jump's breakup, the brothers are highly revered. It's no overstatement to say they are major players in the city's arts community.

And not just the rock scene. Since 2005, Matt has become a habitue of Theatre 99 and its improv company. He's performed as the devilish elf in David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries. And, of course, he and Evan have blazed new theatrical trails with their Frankenstein-like creation.

But now they are at a crossroads. In order to grow, they must say goodbye.

Cabaret Kiki may be, commercially speaking, a gold mine waiting to happen. It's a variety show for the 21st century. Its core is the rock band fronted by singers Matt Bivins and Cary Ann Hearst, who embody alter egos whose love for each other alternates with their hate (it's a relationship "fraught with disfunction," Matt says). Around the band is a showcase of ballet dancers, classical musicians, political satire, and more than a bit of tittilating burlesque.

During its peak in 2006, Kiki offered fresh material — new songs and routines — every month. Like a jazz arrangement, it was an ameobic thing, the same every time but different, too. It offered the comfort of being familiar with the novelty of being new. It aimed for art but not without a little sleaze. It drew inspiration from the dangerous allure of the Weimar Republic, from the gender-bending camp of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, from the surprising ironic delights of Second City.

"It's defined by not being defined," Evan says. "When people think of cabaret, they think of the musical or Gypsy. This is stylistically more modern, but it pays homage to that tradition. We want to leave our mark on that."

It's this double nature — art with the burlesque, the familiar with the new, characters who are evidently co-dependent — that contributes to making Kiki so appealing. And it's what could make it a profitable enterprise.

Problem is, the Bivins don't know how.

That's why they're heading for Chicago.

Despite their accomplishments, the Bivins believe they have much to learn. They understand the music industry. Now they want to learn about theater. Chicago is known for its theaters and the spirit of collaboration between them. Given this, and given the regular exchange of artists between the Holy and Windy cities, the Bivins believe it's the right place and the right time.

"We're in our early and mid-30s," Matt says. "If we don't go now, we probably won't ever go."

The dream, they say, is Broadway. But the brothers are realistic. They were in a band for years and years. They were on the road playing the same songs night after night. They have been working on the book for a musical version of Kiki for months.

So they know all about being patient.

Even if they never see Kiki produced, the Bivins will have learned something — what needs to be done on the business end to make it work.

And this seems to be the critical issue. You can tell that if they could make Kiki commercially viable in Charleston — that is, if they could properly compensate artists for all their hard work and be able to make a living at the same time — they'd stay "in a skinny minute," Evans says.

But in Charleston, where is the capital? Where are the producers? Where are the people who fill in that middle level, connecting artists with investors? The Bivins don't know. Perhaps no one knows. Perhaps they don't exist at all.

It's not hard to imagine the Bivins stepping into that role someday. They understand entertainment (rock clubs), they understand what their generation wants (variety, humor, art), they understand the appeal of experiencing an alternate universe (exotic characters, sexy dancers, dark mystique).

At some point they may come back. They say they'd like to. For now, they have to leave in order to grow, and they have to grow in order to truly make their mark, whether that's here or in Chicago or wherever they find themselves.

"It's very, very important to us that people know how much we love them and are inspired by them and that we are not abandoning Charleston," Evan says.

"It's just that Chicago gives us the opportunity to see what we can do."


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