Reviving musical intimacy through cabaret

The Rrazz Room, a cabaret nightclub, opened Sept. 18 in the Prince Theater.

A grand piano, vase of roses and a stool sat on the stage the opening night of the Rrazz Room, the room garbed in black except for deep red curtains, tablecloths and the cabaret’s logo projected onto the stage. Broadway singer Karen Mason performed, filling the intimate space with her resonant voice.

Rrazz Room founders Robert Kotonly and Rory Paull opened their Philly cabaret location Sept. 18 in the Prince Theater, owned by the Philadelphia Film Society, to bring the intimacy of live music back to the city, Kotonly said.

The duo started its career as concert promoters in San Francisco, where they became friendly with the management of the Empire Plush Room, a well-known club.

Soon after, Paull and Kotonly were asked if they’d like to take the reins of the Plush Room.

“We looked at each other and within three seconds we said, ‘Yeah we could do this,’” Kotonly said.

Paull and Kotonly opened the San Francisco Rrazz Room in 2003. After ten years, they decided it was time to return to their home on the East Coast.

Kotonly saw Philadelphia as a great place for their next venture.

“If you asked me what my favorite kind of music is, it’s that classical, soul, R&B and no one does that like the Philadelphia sound,” Kotonly said. “I also think it is an untapped market.”

At the time, Philadelphia did not have cabaret clubs. Kotonly said he thinks cabaret is a misunderstood word. He looks at a cabaret as “more of a space” than a genre of music. Most venues lack the ability to connect with a performer while they are on stage and after the show, he said.

“It is not what’s on the stage, it’s about the environment,” Kotonly said. “I think the best ingredient of this thing is the intimacy of the room.”

Kotonly also added that having a well-balanced calendar is important to a successful nightclub. His opening weekend showcased Mason and a drag show from Tony Award-nominated playwright Charles Busch.

“There is comedy, there’s R&B, there’s Broadway, there’s cabaret,” Kotonly said. “And I think to run a successful club, you have to appeal to a lot of different types of audiences.”

Charles Busch said the low stage of the Rrazz Room added to the positive experience of his performance Sept. 19.

“This is a lovely space. I prefer cabaret spaces with a very low stage so that I’m almost on the same playing field as the audience,” Busch said in an email. “Many cabarets have a high stage and you feel very apart from everyone.”

The Rrazz Room’s location in the Prince Theater was once Morgan’s Cabaret, which closed after its 2013-14 season.

“I wanted to pay tribute to what this room was all about when it was in its heyday,” Kotonly said.

Senior film major Sammi Begelman is an intern with the Philadelphia Film Society and worked the evening of Mason’s performance as an usher.

“I know with everyone sitting at the tables, it just makes it more personal,” Begelman said. “Everyone stayed to talk to her and stuff like that doesn’t happen in the big theater.”

The audience’s sentiment toward the opening show also affirmed Kotonly’s purpose.

“A lot of people came over to me and said, ‘Thank you for bringing this art form back to Philadelphia,’ and that made me feel good because I thought, ‘Oh wow, maybe we are on to something here,’” Kotonly said.

Kotonly enjoys the Prince Theater for the wide variety of artists it showcases. With a 446-seat main theater, he hopes the Prince and the Rrazz Room will develop an even larger audience.

“I think this building is going to become known as a place where there is a lot of different things going on, so I hope that the Rrazz will add to that,” Kotonly said.

Emily Scott can be reached at

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