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54 Below: Come to the cabaret

Singer/actress Patti LuPone performs at the 54 Below

Singer/actress Patti LuPone performs at the 54 Below With Patti Lupone Press Preview at 54 Below in Manhattan. (June 5, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

How disorienting. Although the fall is percolating with new shows we naturally hope will be worth the effort, I find myself magnetized by a different Broadway experience.

It is down a handsome staircase lined in ruby-flocked wallpaper and old-timey Follies photos that make me want to stop on the steps and study each one. The wood is dark and warm. The lighting is that muted Victorian rose that makes people look more dewy than they ever did at home.

The place makes me want to settle in, which is precisely the intention. 54 Below -- nestled in what used to be the storage cellar of the building that houses Studio 54 -- is a 150-seat supper club with cabaret acts by theater people and ambitions to be the place theater people and audiences hang out after the shows. The food is sophisticated and understated -- no dinner-

theater platters of indeterminate origin here. The rectangle of a room -- which promotion wishfully calls "Broadway's living room" -- is cozy without feeling cramped, with sight lines as clear as the sound system, which means very clear, indeed.

Things all come together with the lighthearted precision of a breezy, grown-up Broadway musical. This is also no accident. The club is owned by four veteran Broadway producers -- Richard Frankel, Marc Routh, Steven Baruch and Tom Viertel -- some of the major guys behind "Hairspray" and "The Producers." John Lee Beatty, whose Tony-winning theater sets really do make people want to live in them, designed the room, and you may want personally to thank Tony winner Ken Billington for the lights.

Frankel, puttering proprietarily around the space in the afternoon before Marin Mazzie's show a couple of weeks ago, seems delighted and just a bit surprised about his new business and obsession.

"On a personal level," says Frankel, who worked in a nightclub in the Catskills as a teenager, "We just always wanted to do this." Some of these same men were behind an Off-Broadway supper-club musical, "Song of Singapore," in the '90s. "We lost every nickel, but it was so much fun. When we asked ourselves why it didn't work, we realized it was the food. It wasn't up to New York standards." (This time, they hired Andre Marrero, formerly of db Bistro Moderne and other A-list restaurants, to be executive chef. Associates of foodie superstar Danny Meyer helped design the kitchen.)

On a business level, Frankel says, "There was a screaming need for a mid-price place where people we worked with in the theater could do their acts, themed for the theater, in the theater district." When pressed, he estimates the venture cost "several million dollars." Just like a Broadway show, there is a break-even number.

"We're approaching it," he says. Of the 14 headliner and more casual shows a week, the scheduled events are selling well, and the owners have just added a pre-theater dinner for people going to other shows. But the slow hours are the late-night hangout times, where people can drop in, some nights with no cover and no minimum, with live music Tuesdays at 10:30, a cocktail lounge after 10 on other weeknights and a bar theoretically open until 2 a.m. "It's hardest to get people to come after their shows," he admits, "but the audience is building."

54 Below opened in early June, but the new fall season inevitably ramps up the energy. Patti LuPone, who was the first headliner, returns Tuesday for seven performances. Linda Lavin sings tomorrow at 7 p.m. and next Sunday at 3 p.m. The summer included a week with Faith Prince, a night each with Victor Garber and Tonya Pinkins. Maurice Hines came with an all-woman swing band. Norbert Leo Butz brought his blues-rock band.

With Scott Wittman, lyricist of "Hairspray" and "Smash," as creative consultant and Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs (MAC) Award-winner Phil Geoffrey Bond as programming director, the two-shows-a-day, seven-day schedules have been as eclectic as they are hectic. The goal is to mix uptown and downtown acts, Broadway headliners and chorus talent with ideas for shows.

These are not obvious heydays for cabaret in New York. In February, the Algonquin Hotel closed its Oak Room, an institution for 32 years. Feinstein's at Loews Regency will close at the end of the year, though owner Michael Feinstein is looking to relocate. There are smaller, frequently beloved cabaret rooms around town. But except for the swanky and historic Carlyle on the Upper East Side and the creatively buzzing Joe's Pub in the East Village, the mainstream supply of intimate nightclubs is pretty slim.

The schedule at 54 Below seems determined to answer all needs at all times and just about all budgets. In addition to the headliners at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, at 8:30 and 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, there is a gospel-rhythm and blues brunch on Saturdays and a jazz brunch with Barbara Carroll on Sundays. Cover charges range from a high of $95 for LuPone, with a $30 food and drink minimum, to the more standard $20-$30 cover, $25-$30 minimum. Covers are $10 less at the bar, which also has terrific sight lines. (Visit 54below.com or call 866-468-7619 for specifics.)

Frankel won't name the artists on his wish list, but he says there are some Broadway stars who have turned him down flat. He says they tell him, "It's not for me, honey. Give me a character and I am fine." On the other hand, Frankel is surprised to find the deep similarities between restaurant people and theater people. "We're both self-motivated and overworked," he says, half-joking, "and we're both chasing that elusive standard."

He finds himself "in awe of Broadway performers, but I really wasn't aware that so many have so many other arts bursting out of them. We've tapped into a wellspring of artistic ambition and desire."

He says people are finding the idea "infectious." I'm afraid I've caught it already.

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