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Feature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

A Year of Uncertainty is Fertile Terrain for Cabaret

Feature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

2021 was a year that began and ended with the specter of Covid wreaking havoc upon the NYC cabaret scene. All the variants, alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and omicron have reared their heads in various months. All the while New Yorkers were getting vaccinated and cabaret rooms were making it a requirement of patronage. Despite all the precautions and protocols, we are ending our year in the same manner we began it, with a maddening amount of uncertainty about the future.

And yet there is much that is good to report. New York cabaret is back and in many ways, it is better than ever. We can take pride in a community that is stronger, more supportive, and more diverse than it has ever been. There is, of course, much to do still, but we are on a path that may lead us toward a second "golden age" of New York cabaret that could rival the 1980s. The signs are all around us. Not only have most of our cabaret rooms survived the pandemic, but we have also seen the birth of new spaces this year. There is more crossover between Broadway and cabaret than we have seen in decades, and thanks to social media, there are more new artists on the scene as well. Even with all the pandemic woes, as Jerry Herman would say "the best of times is now. As for tomorrow, well, who knows...who knows...who knows?"

I began my year covering virtual events. It is an exciting new development that even after the clubs began reopening, many have continued to live stream certain performances as well. It is bringing the art of cabaret to audiences that never had access to it before. And the variety of styles within our community boggles the mind. Cabaret is no longer simply the repository of The Great American Songbook. It is a healthy sign that cabaret now encompasses every style of music and performance art. It is a thrilling time to be a cabaret reviewer because we have a front-row seat to a transitional and a transformative period in the art form.

So as the year ends, I have put together a very personal "top ten list" of shows I reviewed this year. I approach this kind of list with a great deal of trepidation because it is extremely subjective. I saw about a hundred shows out of the thousands that were produced in New York this year. So this list is in no way a comprehensive survey of all that was excellent. There simply isn't space for that. These are just the ten shows that struck a particular chord with me. I could not be more proud to be part of such a talented and forward-thinking community.

10. Kim David Smith: MOSTLY MARLENE at Club Cumming

Feature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

Club Cumming was the right gritty backdrop for Kim David Smith's Weimar-era tribute to Dietrich. He didn't so much impersonate the great diva as channel her essence, dressed in her signature gender-bending tuxedo. Tracy Stark's clever arrangements were the perfect compliment for Smith's smooth-as-silk vocals. It genuinely felt like a time-travel adventure to the world of The Blue Angel.

9. Eleri Ward: A PERFECT LITTLE DEATH at Rockwood Music Hall

Feature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

After the event, which was designed as the release of her album of alt-rock versions of Sondheim tunes, I asked Ms. Ward if she had sent a copy to Mr. Sondheim yet. I hope she took that advice. I think he would have been thrilled at the creative transformation she found in his tunes. Her re-invention of "Johanna (reprise)" from Sweeney Todd was a haunting reminder of just what a brilliant dramatist Sondheim was. Eleri Ward is a mesmerizing presence.

8. Natalie Joy Johnson at the Green Room 42

Feature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

Natalie Joy Johnson is what would happen if you rolled Jane Krakowski, Lisa Lampanelli, and Bette Midler together. She belts in full Patti LuPone mode and is funnier than Margaret Cho and Kathy Griffin combined. She told fantastically ribald tales of surviving the lack of in-person dates during the pandemic with a cocktail of actual cocktails and internet cam porn. It was a side-splitting, uncensored evening of great stories and fantastic singing. Her version of Lionel Ritchie's "Lady" brought new colors to a very underrated standard.

7. Marilyn Maye at 54 BelowFeature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

No matter how many times you've caught her act, there's nothing quite as thrilling as watching the undisputed queen of cabaret, Marilyn Maye. At 93, she is still finding ways to surprise us. Her performance of "Joey, Joey, Joey" by Frank Loesser was a spellbinding masterclass in the art of holding an audience in thrall. This performance had the added appeal of arrangements by the amazing Tedd Firth. The indefatigable Marilyn Maye shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. That is something to be very thankful for.

6. Meg Flather: RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN 2021 At Don't Tell Mama

Feature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

Singer/songwriter Meg Flather gave us a fresh and smart look at the world of Rodgers & Hammerstein. She brought them into the 21st century by using current events to show just how ahead of their time these classic songs were. She hasn't reinvented the songs as much as she has restored them to their rightful place as adult rather than family entertainment. She put the danger back in the very controversial subjects R&H chose to write about. Her performance of "Lonely Room" from Oklahoma was a fantastic display of pandemic-era anxiety. Special kudos to Tracy Stark for her wonderful music direction.

5. Jason Danieley: REFLECTIONS at 54 Below

Feature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

Grief is a difficult subject to deal with in a cabaret setting. Jason Danieley gave us a beautifully-constructed show about how he survived the death of his legendary wife, Marin Mazzie, that was celebratory and nostalgic without ever becoming sad or elegiac. It was a hopeful walk through a tragic valley. Mr. Danieley has one of Broadway's most glorious tenor voices and he was in excellent voice here. His reading of "All the Things You Are" was gorgeous enough to melt even the hardest of hearts. Joseph Thalken provided the thoughtful arrangements.

4. Justin Vivian Bond: STORMING THE GLAMPARTS at Joe's Pub

Feature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

One of the unexpected joys of this year was my introduction to performance artist Justin Vivian Bond. Their show goes beyond mere cabaret. It is a show about everything that is important in 2021. And although they claim to rate low on the empathy scale, the show they created is aggressively about love and kindness with a side of activism thrown in for good measure. Mx. Bond has a completely singular point of view on art, politics, love, and life. I left their show an ardent fan. Their darkly funny performance of "Good Morning, Midnight, It's Christmas" was simply brilliant.

3. Joe Gulla: THE BRONX QUEEN At 54 Below

Feature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

Master storyteller, Joe Gulla spins tales that are Dickensian in their scope. The threads of his disparate yarns about growing up a gay kid in The Bronx, his father's fishing boat, The Bronx Queen, and even a personal meeting with Basquiat unravel slowly only to eventually interweave into a story about love and forgiveness. I particularly loved a story about him and his friend Eva who take revenge on a mean neighbor with some graffiti that goes sadly wrong. In a field dominated by virtuosic singing, it was a joy to watch an hour and a half of spoken word that was so compelling and filled with humanity.

2. Andrew Barth Feldman: PARK MAP at 54 Below

Feature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

On the surface, 19-year-old Andrew Barth Feldman's show is a loving tribute to all things Disney told by a kid who approaches the level of a Disney-savant. There's not much about Disney and their theme parks that he doesn't know. But beneath all the Mouse trivia is a deeply thoughtful show that uses the Disney parks as a metaphor for a refuge from the traumas of life that batter at us all. It is a tribute to Feldman's mother, whom he lost at a young age, and to his continuing connection to her through the magic of Disney. He uses a nagging question about Tomorrowland as a recurring hook. "How do you build a world based on the future when the future keeps changing?" Wisdom out of the mouths of babes.

1. Ari Grooves: MESSAGE FROM A WANDERER at 54 Below

Feature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

Ariana Groover pushes the envelope of cabaret to its limits in this exquisitely written evening about a wanderer from the future who returns to the year 2021 to examine a pivotal point in the history of the ancestors. As a social commentator, Ari Grooves pulls no punches in describing the hate, violence, fear, and racism that has been such an inescapable part of this year. But she has the amazing gift of being able to see the thing that is special about every single human being. You walk away from Ari Grooves' show with the sense that although the world has so much serious work to do, there is hope. And hope is all that matters. She equates the world we live in to a supernova. "In order for new stars to be born, old ones have to die away." It is a perfect metaphor for our post-pandemic world.

I am so grateful to the New York cabaret community for giving me so much to think about in 2021. So much joy, so much beauty, so many tears, and so many smiles. Cabaret is not simply a place where people sing songs and tell stories. It is a place where souls are revealed and shared. That is an act that requires courage. We live in an age that demands courage. As we begin another year of uncertainty, it gives me strength to know that so many beautiful, talented, courageous artists are still, thankfully, on the job.

A joyous New Year to all

Feature: MY 2021 TOP 10 CABARET WRAP-UP

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