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NPR’s Ari Shapiro reveals his cheeky side in ‘Och & Oy!’, a cabaret with Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming and Ari Shapiro perform their cabaret in Kennebunkport, Maine. (Courtesy Celebrity Series Boston)
Alan Cumming and Ari Shapiro perform their cabaret in Kennebunkport, Maine. (Courtesy Celebrity Series Boston)

A friend of Ari Shapiro’s once told him, unlike a musical revue, a cabaret is visceral. It comes alive. It needs to evolve, to go somewhere unpredictable and take the audience along for the ride. It needs a reason to exist.

Perhaps after a pandemic-induced hiatus, it’s a precious opportunity to spend time in a room laughing with strangers. You may have already known this from all the driveway moments you’ve spent listening to him, but Ari Shapiro is a natural entertainer. Far from the radio studio and into the stage lights, the longtime host of NPR's All Things Considered will make his Boston debut in the two-man cabaret, “Och & Oy! A Considered Cabaret” alongside Broadway star and Tony Award-winning Actor Alan Cumming. The show runs Sunday, Oct. 24 and is presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at Symphony Hall.

As Shapiro points out, their show is not formally scripted though they do tend to sing the same songs and hit the same beats with a seasoning of the bawdy and risque. But stories they share take on a life of their own, sometimes with new details, sometimes when they go off on tangents. There is no straight man here, just two people playing off each other’s energy.

Alan Cumming and Ari Shapiro in "Och & Oy." (Courtesy Emilio Madrid)
Alan Cumming and Ari Shapiro in "Och & Oy." (Courtesy Emilio Madrid)

“Alan and I take on these characters, where he eggs me on a little bit outside of my comfort zone, and I kind of rib him as being the younger, taller one,” Shapiro said. “And one of the things that he said when we started talking about doing this show is that he does a lot of interviews with a lot of people. And he liked that I was not afraid to call him out and give him a little bit of pushback.”

It isn’t a completely new world for Shapiro. In college and high school, he did a lot of theater, sang in choirs and an a cappella group. Sometimes, he tours with a band from his hometown of Portland, Oregon called Pink Martini. And at one point he said he created a kind of a solo cabaret show of his own that he performed a few times in D.C., New York and a couple of other cities. At one of those shows, Cumming came up on stage and sang a song, one of the many instances that made them both realize there was something to their dynamic, this rapport.

“I know it's the sort of odd couple pairing, Alan and I,” Shapiro said. “We seem very different from each other. But one of the things that we've realized is we've become friends over the years that we actually both do very similar things. We're both storytellers. We both try to create connections across differences. We both try to help people better understand themselves and each other and the world that we live in.”

It’s been satisfying to perform again, according to Shapiro. This cabaret is something he does on his off-hours, that fulfills a need to connect in a different way than hosting a radio show. And this is not vacation per se, but a kind of reset for his brain, body, and voice so that when he pivots back to journalism, he feels ready to return to the fray.

“What's most valuable, certainly for me, is the experience of sharing a live performance with other people in a room together who are never going to be in that exact place with those exact people ever again,” he said. “There's a different kind of exchange, but the electricity of being in a room with an audience experiencing a live performance cannot compare. And so that has been a delight, a thrill, a salve like an energetic refill. Choose your metaphor.”

"Och & Oy! A Considered Cabaret" is presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at Symphony Hall on Sunday, Oct. 24.

Cristela Guerra Twitter Reporter
Cristela Guerra is an arts and culture reporter for WBUR.

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