Hear Yee, hear Yee, cabaret court is in session

By Don Mayhew
By almost any measure, Matt Yee had it made. A lucrative career in law. An ocean-view office in a Hawaii skyscraper. New house. New car.

But something was missing.

"I started playing piano and singing when I was 3, always by ear," Yee says. "I was one of those child prodigies. I started lessons at 4. I played all the time."

There was joy in making music. There was not in making corporate real estate deals, despite the swanky view.

So Yee, who's scheduled to perform his "Love and Liberace" cabaret show at the Express' new location tonight, chucked it all a few years ago to return to his first love. His family, "nice Chinese parents who didn't know what to do with this son who had this whole other artistic side," pitched a fit.

"You know, smart Chinese children grow up to be lawyers, doctors and architects," Yee says. But he was undeterred. "Life is so much easier when you enjoy what you're doing."

They couldn't say their son hadn't given it the old college try. Yee was a lawyer for four years. But he still had tapes he'd recorded between law studies. One day, he impulsively took them to a studio near his Hawaiian office and found himself with an offer to write songs and produce others' music.

He soon was working all night in the studio and struggling to keep up with his day job.

"Eventually, I had to leave the law firm," Yee says. "I'd be in the studio until 4 a.m., then going into the office at 8 a.m."

He heard a higher power calling: "The Universe said, 'You can continue to do this and go in circles, or we can open the door for you and you can go through it.' "

Yee hasn't looked back -- much.

He didn't immediately plunge into cabaret. First came a short-lived Hawaiian reggae band. Then Hawaiian Public Radio offered to promote a cabaret show starring Yee.

"I'd always wanted to do my own show," Yee says. "But I thought I'd have to do it out of town. It was right there all along."

He caught another break when one of the big hotels in Waikiki hired him for an extended engagement. Tourists worldwide caught his act, and word of mouth spread.

Somewhere along the way, someone described him this way: "Think Elton John crossed with a Chinese Liberace and you're close."

Because his audiences were new every week, he didn't have to worry about changing his act much. Still, it evolved.

"Instead of just doing a bunch of songs, I started introducing characters and themes," Yee says. "Then comedy came along. I found I had a gift for it."

Bits include his Chinese Auntie's Love Lines, where you phone in and get advice for $2.99 a minute, and a revue called "The Co-Dependent Show: A Timeless Look at Love."

"I was making people laugh and making people cry at the same time -- which is kind of cool," Yee says. But cabaret's sentimental streak is only part of the appeal.

"Boas and tiaras do something," he says. "They just open up people. It's like a costume party or something. It gives people permission to play.

"You know, we lead such busy lives with computers, e-mail -- we forget how to play. We forget how to have fun. I was in a theater the other day, watching this movie, and I hear three cell phones go off. What's with that?  You can't turn off your cell phone and watch a movie for an hour?"

Yee has been busy touring the country the past few months, performing at various gay pride events. The Millennium March in Washington, D.C., was the first time Yee had played for hundreds of thousands of people.

While he's quick to point out that his show has appeal to people of all sexual orientations, Yee admits that cabaret has a special place in gay culture.

"Let's face it: A lot of us like to dress up," he says. "But we don't do it in other areas of our lives. We don't walk around as Cher -- except maybe at Halloween. Because, hey, people may look at you funny.

"In cabaret, it doesn't matter."

Showtime is 8 tonight. Admission is $25, $15 for Central California Alliance members. The Express is at 3075 N. Maroa Ave., in Nicola's old location. Details: 224-1024.