23rd Annual New York Cabaret Convention Recap: Two Out of Three Solid Shows Ain't Bad
Cabaret Review by Stephen Hanks
There may have been 40 cabaret performers strutting their stuff this past week at the 23rd New York Cabaret Convention at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center, but the true star of the three-night extravaganza (October 17-19) was the late Donald Smith, the cabaret impresario and guru to the genre’s luminaries, who died this past March at 79. Sponsored by the Mabel Mercer Foundation, which Smith founded in 1985, this year's Convention featured numerous homages to Smith from the performers, many of whom had their career's supported and advanced with the help of the colorful and beloved cabaret producer and promoter. Early in Wednesday's Gala Opening Night show, the "first lady of the American keyboard" Barbara Carroll called her friend Donald Smith "the quintessential New Yorker," and when Mark Nadler closed night one with George and Ira Gershwin's "Our Love Is Here to Stay," he said, "Everybody who cares about the myths of these songs are in this room tonight." Well, it was clear that anyone who cared about Donald Smith was at the Rose Theater for at least one of the three shows.
Based on the overall buzz in the Jazz at Lincoln Center lobby, Smith would have been pleased with the first Cabaret Convention staged without his guiding hand, and which is now under the artistic direction of colorful cabaret chanteuse K.T. Sullivan. Over the three nights, audiences heard legendary singers and exciting up-and-comers, standards of the Great American Songbook and classic pop tunes, poignant tear-inducing numbers and quirky humor songs, all supported by some of the most accomplished musicians in cabaret and musical theater.
Opening night turned out to be the weakest of three shows, mostly due to some questionable song choices and arrangements than for a lack of talented performers. K.T Sullivan opened the show (which ran a bit over three hours but seemed longer) with "The Best Is Yet to Come," and after hearing from Jeff Harner, Barbara Carroll and Valerie Lemon (who paid tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch with “If You Remember Me”), the best finally came with the glorious Amanda McBroom (photo right) offering the hilarious and timely-for-election-season "I Miss Monica," which she wrote a couple of years back with Joel Silberman. "I miss Monica, I miss Bill/I miss the time before the slime of greed devoured Capital Hill . . . I miss honesty, I miss trust/The graceful guise of compromise/The innocence of lust." It was just icing on the cake when McBroom honored Donald Smith with a lovely medley of "The Way You Look Tonight" and her poignant original song "Dance."
Unfortunately, the first act momentum was brought to a screeching halt (literally) by Emily Bergl, who apparently thought it was more important to show off her lovely legs in a tuxedo jacket over a leotard than to perform with her best material. After the forgettable mashup of the Tin Pan Alley song "Hello My Baby" with Lady Gaga's "Telephone," which was very unlikely to connect with the predominantly AARP audience, Bergl offered a cringe-inducing impression of Elaine Stritch singing Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," a number which will not have people forgetting the great Christine Pedi any time soon. Gregory Generet was solid on George Gershwin's "Embraceable You" and Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" but the jazzy arrangements were way overdone (the highlight was Mark Gross’ sax solo), and Amra-Faye Wright's performance of "Good Little Girls (Go To Heaven)" was borderline burlesque without the sensuality, and weirdly placed in the show so soon after Bergl's leggy turn. (Wright’s gams did look great, though, when she put on some stilettos before her second number.) (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
K.T. Sullivan (photo left) got Act 2 off to a sophisticated and fun start, delivering "I Never Do Anything Twice," with both class and humor. K.T. and the legendary Julie Wilson then presented rising cabaret performer Shana Farr with an award named for Wilson. After an okay comic turn on Noel Coward's "Bad Times Are Just Around the Corner," Farr wasn't quite as effective on her Julie Andrews medley of "Crazy World" and "I Have Confidence." Considering Farr has staged a well-received Julie Andrews tribute show and has a whole Andrews songbook to choose from, these songs weren’t her best choices and they fell a bit flat.
Singer/pianist Tony DeSare was up next and for this reviewer, he was a revelation. A hybrid of a young Michael Feinstein and Harry Connack, Jr., DeSare dazzled on "I Love a Piano" (which included some cute licks from "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Rhapsody in Blue") and on his original song "Chemistry," a bouncy retro-cabaret tune. The wonderful Catherine Russell brought her jazzy vibe into the mix with a slightly up-tempo version of the torch song "You Go to My Head," before singing the foot-tapping "Steppin' Out With My Baby." While Tim Sullivan (K.T.'s brother) brought a charming country personality to the festivities, in a cabaret show I could have done without his gimmicky "My Best Friends" (about his favorite 100 musical influences) and Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," during which getting the audience to join in a singalong was like pulling dentures. Lauren Fox, the 2012 MAC Award winner for Female Debut for her show featuring the songs of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, got things back on track with her ethereal rendition of "Woodstock" (from her new cabaret show Canyon Folkies: Over the Hills and Under the Covers) and a haunting arrangement of Cohen's "Hallelujah."
One aspect of this Convention that was consistent throughout the three nights was the superb work of the musicians, who are the most underrated performers in the art form. So we interrupt this review to acknowledge the rocks of the Convention, especially bassist Daniel Fabricant and drummer Sherrie Maricle, who served as the orchestra (with various pianists) for all of Night Two. Piano: Mark Fifer, Joel Silberman, Rick Germanson, Mark Hummel, Jon Weber, James Followell, Alex Rybeck, Lawrence Yurman, Don Rebic, Shelly Markham, Jeffrey Neiman, Nate Buccieri, Mike Renzi, Chris Denny, Beth Ertz, Tracy Stark, Mark Hartman, Bill Zeffiro; Bass: Jay Leonhart, Dwayne Burno, Robert Sabin, Ritt Henn; Guitar: Peter Calo, Scott Johnson; Sax: Mark Gross; Reeds: Aaron Irwin; Trumpet: Trevor Neumann; Drums: Lawrence Leathers, Norbert Goldberg.
Among the performers for what turned out to be a great Night Two were the legends (L), the almost legends (AL) and the potentially legendary (PL). The hosts were Andrea Marcovicci (L) and Jeff Harnar (PL, photo right), who the night before had been presented with the third annual Noel Coward Cabaret Award. Marcovicci and Harnar kicked off the show's Cole Porter theme with an adorable "Let's Do It," before turning things over to pianist Steve Ross (AL) for a delightful and delicious "De-Lovely." Colleen McHugh (PL), who these days is regularly dazzling audiences at the Duplex, nailed "I Happen to Like New York" and "Find Me a Primitive Man." Ann Hampton Callaway (AL), fresh off a critically-acclaimed Barbra Streisand show at 54 Below scatted her way through "What is This Thing Called Love," before transfixing the house with "I Gaze In Your Eyes," the melody she was commissioned by the Porter Estate to write to a Cole poem, and which sounds like a ballad that could have been composed for Barbra. One the show's highlights featured the dapper T. Oliver Reid and the de-lovely Jennifer Sheehan Fred and Gingering their way through "Night and Day." Then the stunningly retro Maude Maggart (PL) was mesmerizing on "Looking at You," and an awesome rendition of "Love for Sale." Marcovicci closed Act 1 with a cute "Let's Not Talk About Love," before she had to bug out for her show at the Cafe Carlyle.
Act 2 started with a bang as Billy Stritch (AL) was his usual smooth self with jazzy arrangements of the Porter classics "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "I Get a Kick Out of You." Billy then stuck around to accompany the ageless uber-legend Marilyn Maye (her 8th year at the Convention) on "It's Alright With Me" and a rousing "Anything Goes." Darryl Sherman shone on piano honoring the late Celeste Holm with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," which Holm sang with Frank Sinatra in the film High Society. Anna Bergman and Todd Murray made an adorable couple on "So In Love" from Kiss Me Kate, before Murray portrayed a guy afraid of commitment after a roll in the hay with a funny, swinging take on "Don't Fence Me In." The lithe and lovely Karen Akers (AL) brought Porter's affinity (as well as her own) for all things Parisian to her medley of "I Love Paris"/"You Don't Know Paree"/"Allez-Vous En," and then Jeff Harner continued toasting the French with a masterful job on the frenetic and multi-versed "Can-Can." At this point one wouldn't think any of this could be topped, but Clint Holmes (AL) both ended and stole the show. After his mashup of Paul Simon's "Feelin' Groovy" with Porter's "De-Lovely" (from his critically-acclaimed show earlier this year at Cafe Carlyle), Holmes (photo above), a hot throwback to the swing era, energetically crooned "You're the Top," appropriately capping off a sublime evening of song.
The sassy comedic songstress Klea Blackhurst (PL, photo right with Jim Caruso) was an ideal choice to host the Convention finale and she blew the roof off Rose Theater with "Blow, Gabriel, Blow. (Oh, how I'm hoping Jerry Lewis' The Nutty Professor Musical makes it to Broadway if only to see Klea nail the Kathleen Freeman role from the original film.) After K.T. Sullivan presented Blackhurst with the first annual Donald F. Smith Award, Lee Roy Reems (L) was buoyant and bouncy on "It's Today" from Mame, and then offered a lovely version of the sensual Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh ballad "Don't Blame Me."
Three stars of the future highlighted the rest of Act 1. The adorable Carole J. Bufford (photo left) was stunning in both her form-fitting silver evening gown and on her rendition of "What Did I Have That I Don't Have" (from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever), 20-year-old Nicolas King warmed the hearts of romantics in the audience by keeping the memories of the good old days alive with a medley of Peggy Lee's "New York City Blues," and "The Algonquin Hotel," a Duncan Lamont song about everyone connected with the infamous Round Table, and including lyrics augmented by Nicolas and one of his pals named Liza Minnelli. It was a wonderfully fitting song given the recent passing of the Oak Room. After Chicago-based cabaret veterans Beckie Menzie and Tom Michael cooed "Windmills of Your Mind," another precocious young performer William Blake (and three lovely backup singers) blew everyone's mind with his channeling of Etta James on "Sunday Kind of Love" and "I'd Rather Go Blind."
Karen Mason (PL) who appears to have gamely brushed off her disappointment from the Rebecca the Musical fiasco (she was set to be in the cast), opened Act 2 with a jaunty "It's Almost Like Being in Love" and then "It's About Time," a poignant ballad about relationships written by Mason's husband Paul Rolnick and Shelly Markham. Karen stuck around to present the Mabel Mercer Award to her friend Christine Andreas (PL), who promptly stunned the audience with a stirring "The Summer Knows" (from the film Summer of '42), and a raucous yet sensual turn on one of Edith Piaf's classics, the uptempo dance hall song "Milord." Craig Rubano just barely but bravely navigated through "Bridge Over Troubled Water," while Sidney Myer (AL, photo below) had the audience in the palm of his hand and laughing hysterically throughout his deadpan delivery of the hilarious double-entendre number "I'm In Training for You" (which goes back to 1930 when it was done by both Jack Oakie and The Boswell Sisters).
Birdland nightclub regular Natalie Douglas (PL) hypnotized the audience during "I Put a Spell on You" (featuring a great piano riff from Mark Hartman), and then Birdland host Jim Caruso (PL), bedecked in white dinner jacket, danced his way through “A Shine on My Shoes.” Blackhurst returned to end both the evening and the Convention with a brassy “Before the Parade Passes By.” It was an appropriate finale because if there was one thing everyone knew by the end of the 23rd Annual Cabaret Convention, the parade certainly did not pass Donald Smith by.
Photos by Stephen Sorokoff