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Cabaret Life NYC: Listmania! The Best Cabaret Performers of 2012

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Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks

I really believe that discerning readers, as well as reviewers, have a love/hate relationship with end-of-the-year "best of" lists. Beyond the super subjectivity of the exercise, how can one rank the best of the best in some kind of numerical order and take the whole thing seriously? As the reviewer, it's even more difficult to justify when it's impossible to see every show (so my list below won't include a number of terrific performers, some of whom staged shows at 54 Below that were more like mini-concerts than cabaret presentations). But it's like the proverbial car wreck where you just can't avert your eyes. And for the reader, it is kinda fun to either vigorously nod your head in agreement or growl because you're sure you know way more than the so-called "critic."

When the poobahs at BroadwayWorld.com asked for a New York Cabaret "Best Of" or "Top 10" piece, being a slightly mischievous reviewing rebel, I wanted to come up with a little twist on the list. And being a big baseball guy, I thought about that debate baseball fans and writers always have about whether or not the "Most Valuable Player" should be the best performer of the year--the one who produces unbelievable statistics--or the player who not only produces good numbers but does the most to help his team win games. To me, the analogy for cabaret is the difference between the best shows or singers of the year vs. the best performers, those who not only presented a compelling run of a single show, but who consistently excelled throughout the year and combined solid singing with that special mix of personality, charisma, and acting chops, and created an intimacy with their audiences that made all of their appearances on a cabaret stage truly special.

Since 13 is my lucky and favorite number, I've decided not to limit my "Best Cabaret Performers of 2012" to a nice round digit. And since actually ranking a "Best Of" is a fool's errand (I mean, c'mon, can you really make a case for why one performer ranks sixth and another seventh?), my list below is in alphabetical order. In addition, I've added another list of 13 "Honorable Mentions" that recognize some notable individual or group performances of the year. (Note to my email box: Incoming! Incoming! Take cover!)

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Best Cabaret Performers of 2012

Carole J. Bufford: An adorable and enchanting performer with a deceptively powerful voice, Bufford not only dazzled in speak easy., her homage to 1920s jazz age flappers, but she stood out in a variety of guest appearances, including Scott Siegel's 11 O'clock Numbers at 11 O'clock at Feinstein's, the October Cabaret Convention, the Urban Stages "Winter Rhythms Festival" and a revue featuring of the lyrics of Tom Toce at the Metropolitan Room. Bufford is definitely a cabaret star of the future-if she isn't already. Her new show Body and Soul starts at the Met Room on January 16.

Ann Hampton Callaway: She's on the verge of winning BroadwayWorld.com New York Cabaret Awards for "Best Tribute Show" and "Show of the Year" for good reason. Her Streisand Songbook at 54 Below was not only a vocal tour-de-force but a textbook lesson for budding cabaret performers on how to do it right-with humor, emotion, intimacy, and a touch of raciness. Her terrific post-Thanksgiving show of her own vast songbook at 54 Below was just a helping of delicious pumpkin pie after the turkey dinner. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue)

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Lauren Fox: She was the de-facto cabaret "Rookie of the Year" in 2011 when she garnered awards for her tribute show to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and the pressure was on for Fox to prove she wouldn't be a one-show wonder. But this ethereal-looking (photo) and folk-sounding throwback to another era out-Foxed everyone and avoided the sophomore jinx with her outstanding tribute to 1960s and '70s folk rock, "Canyon Folkies." And, like Bufford, her various guest appearances were knockouts. She's back at the Met Room with her "Folkies" on January 15, 16, 17 and 24.

Terese Genecco: This one-woman Rat Pack almost makes a "Best Performers of the Year" list by default because how could you leave off an entertainer who produces two rousing shows in one night every month at the Iridium? But the gender-bending Genecco was solid wherever she performed in 2012, whether doing a set of early Elvis in Fire Island, guesting at Sean Harkness's Duos show at the Metropolitan Room, drumming away at Raissa Katona Bennett's Concerts for City Greens, or reviving her tribute show to Francis Faye at 54 Below. And if that wasn't enough, she also released a kick-ass CD of her "Little Big Band" Iridium show.

Sean Harkness: Out of a list of 13, I had to include at least one instrumentalist and while there are a number of pianists, drummers, bass and horn players who rate, this ubiquitous guitarist gets the nod. In 2012, Sean seemed to be everywhere and playing for everybody and at a consistently high level. And when he wasn't being one of cabaret's best accompanists, he was hosting a charming new monthly show, Duos, at the Metropolitan Room.

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Joe Iconis and the Family: They aren't on the conventional cabaret community radar because they deliver more pop/rock mini-concerts than "Great American Songbook" shows, but this prolific, young, bound-for-Broadway composer (photo, center, in red tie) and his merry band of talented singer/actors stage some of the most raucously entertaining musical revues in New York. Whether you see the annual Halloween bash, the yearly Christmas Spectacular, or the show featuring the best of the Iconis songbook, you're bound to come away a huge fan.

Barb Jungr: This down-to-earth British singer/actress/comedian brought her amazing Bob Dylan show, Man in the Long Black Coat, back across the pond in 2012. Combining intense, quirky, and accessible arrangements with mesmerizing vocals, Jungr offered one of the best and most compelling cabaret shows of the year during her run this past Spring at the Metropolitan Room. Come back soon, Barb!

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Lorinda Lisitza: This wonderful character actress and powerful vocalist (photo) re-staged her 2007 Bistro Award winning show Triumphant Baby: The Songs of Joe Iconis and Robert Maddock for an extended Metropolitan Room room run and it's a shame it wasn't reviewed by one of the major New York cabaret critics because she and the show get better every time. Lisitza also sizzled this year in a delightful new duo show with guitarist and Metropolitan Room tech guy Ted Stafford, which featured a couple of wonderful original songs.

Colleen McHugh: With her regular "Calender Girl" shows and assorted theme shows (like her Judy Garland tribute), this engaging singer and intelligent improv performer has become the "Diva of The Duplex." She also released a terrific CD based on her homage to Cole Porter ("Pret-a-Porter") and offered a rousing show at Birdland. McHugh's next Duplex extravaganza will be a January 24, 2013 show (9:30 pm) called Wish You Were Here, a collection of songs about travel. I know where I'll be traveling that night--right to the Duplex.

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Mary Liz McNamara and Ritt Henn: One of the most interesting new duos on the cabaret scene (photo), their shows Take That! and It's Pretty Damn Close to Christmas were consistently entertaining and featured original melodies that combine elements of musical theater, pop and jazz, with lyrics that are intelligent, quirky, and fun. To paraphrase one of their songs, being with them was always worth 20 bucks.

Lauren Robert: She was one of the best kept secrets in New York cabaret (she had mainly just appeared at Dana Lorge's Iguana variety shows) until she finally brought her powerful blues vocals to Iridium for just one show this summer and snapped a few strings on the vintage Les Paul guitars mounted on the club's walls. This year, Robert also released an immensely listenable CD of her own songs, one of which--"Look Out Love"--has become a dance club hit. She's back at Iridium in February.

Stacy Sullivan: It takes confidence and guts to not only mount a Peggy Lee tribute show, but to stage most of those gigs at 11:30 at night. With the help of Musical Director Jon Weber, the silky-voiced and silky-haired Sullivan pulled it off with a classy run at the Metropolitan Room where she delivered the legend's songs without a hint of mimicry and with lots of love and passion. The release of a solid CD featuring many Peggy Lee classics was just icing on the cake.

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Lennie Watts: You don't win performance points for being President of MAC, directing the MAC Awards show and guiding a slew of other cabaret performers, but as they say in Brooklyn, "It sure cain't hurt." His Bloody, Bloody Lennie Watts show (performed at both the Metropolitan Room and The Duplex) was one of the best cabaret and vocal efforts of the year and featured outstanding arrangements (with the help of his musical director Steven Ray Watkins) on some classic pop/rock songs.

"Best" and "Most" Honorable Mentions

Best Celebrity Performance in a Variety Show: Neil Sedaka must be drinking from the fountain of youth. His delivery of some of his classics and a couple of new tunes were a treat during his Tribute show in the August 1 edition of the Concerts at (Tudor) City Greens (Raissa Katona Bennett, Producer).

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Best Comeback by a Musical Director/Pianist: At the end of March, Composer/Musical Director Mark Janas' (in photo with Julie Reyburn) underwent emergency brain surgery and, amazingly, by the end of April he was back hosting the Sunday night Salon Open Mic shows and was at top piano playing form. This man is a cabaret treasure.

Most Delightful Performance by a Group in a Revue: Erin Cronican, Rob Langeder, Stacie Perlman and Adam Shapiro in Smile On My Face: The Songs of Richard Eisenberg (Directed by Peter Napolitano/Musical Direction by Barry Levitt). With four young, energetic and talented singer/actor/performers like this crew, the future of cabaret is indeed bright.

Best Delivery of an Original Song Written For Them: Tie--"I'd Rather Be Doing This" (Matthew Martin Ward and Peter Napolitano), sung by Janice Hall in her show of the same title, and "My Kind of Guy" (William Zeffiro), sung by Marissa Mulder in her show Illusions. These songwriters keep churning out terrific original tunes that are ideal fits for their singers.

Best Incorporation of Comedy in a Theme Show: Tie--Alison Nusbaum in Ladies: A Raucous Homage to Mel Brooks Broads at Don't Tell Mama (Mel would kvell), and Amy Wolk in A Wolk on the Wild Side at The Duplex. If these two ever did a show together, it would be comically surreal. Wolk is performing her show at The Duplex again on February 17 at 7pm.

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Best Musical Direction in Totally Disparate Theme Shows: Jon Weber for Canyon Folkies starring Lauren Fox, and for A Tribute to Miss Peggy Lee starring Stacy Sullivan (photo), both at the Metropolitan Room. Did someone say a mash-up of "Woodstock" with "Johnny Guitar?"

Best Performance by a Band in a Cabaret Show: Jon Weber, Ritt Henn and Peter Calo in Canyon Folkies starring Lauren Fox at the Metropolitan Room. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young would have been jealous.

Best Performance by a Singer Impressionist: Christina Bianco (and all her many star characters) in Diva Moments at Birdland. She'll be doing More Diva Moments at Birdland on January 28. Must see.

Best Performance by a Woman of a Certain Age: Veteran actress and comedienne Charlotte Patton delivered an alternately funny, sensual and perceptive performance in Looking for Love in the 21st Century at The Duplex (Barry Levitt, Musical Director).

Best Seasonal Show: Winter Songs, starring the always wonderful Julie Reyburn (Lennie Watts, Director/Mark Janas, Musical Director), at the recent Urban Stages' "Winter Rythyms Festival" was a heart-warming December treat.

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Best Show Direction by a Performer for Another Performer: Karen Oberlin (who performed shows at the Metropolitan Room and Feinstein's in 2012) for both Illusions starring Marissa Mulder (together in photo), and Looking for Love in the 21st Century starring Charlotte Patton.

Best Support of a Singer by a Pianist in a Duo Show: Veteran Musical Director/Composer/Arranger Donn Trenner for the sensational Shaynee Rainbolt in the luscious Two for the Road at the Metropolitan Room.

Most Underrated Show by a Singer/Songwriter Doing Own Material: Meg Flather, On the Second Floor, at Don't Tell Mama. And her CD of the same name is a terrific listen.

Special thanks for all their help and support this year to: Robert Diamond, Christina Mancuso and the Newsdesk staff at BroadwayWorld.com, the managers, bookers, techies and wait staff at all the cabaret clubs (you know who you are!), the Board of MAC, Peter Leavy and Frank Dain at Cabaret Scenes Magazine, and all those who perform in and love cabaret! Happy New Year One and All!

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Stephen Hanks During more than 30 years as a magazine editor/writer, website writer, and book author for a variety of national magazines and websites, Stephen Hanks has written about sports, health and nutrition, parenting, politics, the media, and most recently, musical theater, and cabaret. While by day, Stephen is the Advertising Sales Director for Habitat Magazine (a publication covering life in New York Metro area co-ops and condos), by night he writes reviews and columns about New York City cabaret for BroadwayWorld.com. Stephen also writes feature stories about cabaret for Cabaret Scenes Magazine and CabaretScenes.org. He is also the Board President of Manhattan Musical Theatre Lab, which workshops new musicals in New York City, and he is the founder, producer and director of the Broadway Musical Fantasy Camp, which is a workshop for amateur performers that rehearses and presents staged readings of classic Broadway Musicals. In 2011, Stephen was an Associate Producer for the Off-Broadway show THE FARTISTE. Stephen most recently staged his debut solo cabaret show, "Beyond American Pie: The Don McLean Songbook" at the Metropolitan Room in New York. Please contact Stephen with your comments and questions at: stephenhanks41@gmail.com