The turning point in Abbey Crawford's singing career arrived eight years ago when she opened for famed cabaret singer Samantha Samuels in an AIDS benefit at the Davenport Hotel.
"When she got onstage," says Crawford, "the way she interacted with people gave me an idea of how I wanted to be. She was so at ease -- she'd lay all over the piano. Now, I can stand in one spot and belt a song, but that was the night I learned that I could sing with an audience, not at them. I could interact with an audience and draw them in so that they would not only get what it meant for them, but what it meant for me.
"I sang 'Cabaret' that night, and 'Don't Cry for Me, Argentina' -- people know me for singing those songs now. When I started singing 'Argentina,' they had me sing it from the balcony -- you gotta love gay men, 'Oh, let's have her up in the balcony!' -- and at one point I looked down, and all the people I could see were crying ... and I thought, 'I did that. I did that!' And that was a turning point for me as a performer."
Crawford's cabaret career has taken such an upturn that she's one of 36 singers -- and one of only four from west of the Mississippi -- selected to soak up some song stylization at the second annual Cabaret Conference at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., from July 30-Aug. 8. In order to finance the trip, she'll perform a benefit concert on July 9-10 at the Spokane Civic Theater's intimate downstairs space, the Studio Theater.
Crawford reveals that "I'm self-taught when it comes to cabaret stuff. I've never had a voice lesson a day in my life." So what does she expect during 10 days of intensive voice training at Yale?
"How to script a show," she replies. "I'm great at ad-libbing stuff -- I don't have a problem with standing there and talking about myself," she laughs. "But I want to learn how to make the show flow, because that's what I struggle with the most. Transitions, vignettes, patter between the songs."
Ah, the concerns of a cabaret singer -- they're a far cry from singing hymns in a church choir in Pella, Iowa, where Crawford first learned the power of music to move people emotionally. Her family was supportive: "My mom would practice with us every single day," Crawford recalls. "Driving in the car, she would sing harmonies with us." She sang her first duet in church with her grandmother.
"But the greatest thing Mom ever did for me in terms of singing," says Crawford, was moving the family to Spokane, "because in Pella, you kind of get stuck."
That was in 1990. Crawford soon got cast as a nun in a production of The Sound of Music at the Civic Theater; at Ferris High School, she was all-city and all-Northwest in the choir.
"That was when I was still a soprano, before I started smoking," says Crawford. "I'm an alto-mezzo-belter now."
She inhaled a lot of smoke at Dempsey's downtown, where she sang cabaret for most of 2001-02. "They brought me in because Joe, the resident drag queen, was going to be gone and they needed somebody to cover his shows," Crawford says. "I had started years before with Joe -- his very first drag show, I was the token female."
Her benefit cabaret show on July 9-10 will feature a cabaret atmosphere (minus the carcinogens). Crawford says that with cabaret, "You're intimate, you're live, and you're not a character -- you get to be you. And you get to tell a story with your song. And you tell that story through your eyes, not a character's eyes."
In addition to some church hymns, "Cabaret" and "Argentina" -- "Revue-ing Abbey," after all, is intended as a review in song of her own life -- Crawford will perform 'Danny Boy,' which she sings on behalf of war veterans.
"When I was in high school, I did veterans' assemblies. And I would get these veterans together to talk about the Vietnam War, the Korean War -- we even had a nurse from World War II. I have so much respect for veterans because they taught me that, no matter how strong you are, there will always be something that moves you to the point of tears. I mean, these men have been through hell. That's why I had a USO show -- I wanted to honor them somehow."
Crawford will also sing "Amazing Grace," "Losing My Mind" ("because it's Sondheim"), "Miss Celie's Blues" from the soundtrack to The Color Purple ("it's usually not sung by a little white woman, but it's all about women sticking together") along with "You Are My Sunshine," "Everybody's Girl" and, from West Side Story, Tony's solo, "Something's Coming" ("I'm just throwing that in there, because I tell you, something is coming").
Crawford will be accompanied by Carol Miyamoto on piano and Bruce Pennell on bass. Pennell was instrumental in gathering together a great band for the tribute to the USO show that Crawford developed last year.
"And I told them, I want to take you to New York with me, because I want to sing there: I want Don't Tell Mama's, and I want Danny's, and I want the Algonquin Room -- I want them all. And I want it in my contract that my kids get to come and watch. I want all these things -- I just haven't made them happen yet."