BWW Review: THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CABARET CONVENTION JUDY! A GARLAND OF SONG at The Rose Theater
I've never seen so many red shoes in one place in my life.
Last night was the third night of the 30th anniversary of The Cabaret Convention. It was a glittery, glamorous, star-studded evening, both on the stage and in the audience. Some came to celebrate, some came to support. Some came to be seen. Some came because their favorite singer is Carole J. Bufford and she was on the bill. Some came for the presentation of The Julie Wilson Award. All of these and many others were reason enough to attend the third night of the 30th anniversary of The Cabaret Convention; but there was one salient reason why everyone sitting in The Rose Theater chose this particular night to go out.
We were all there for Judy Garland.
2019 marks 50 years since Judy Garland died, yet she has been so present this year, as to prove that Judy Garland will never really be dead, for she lives in us all. She is still relevant. She is still a major part of all of our lives. In June, Judy Garland was a major theme in all of the World Pride celebrations of Gay Pride month. Throughout the year there have been Judy Garland tribute shows in cabaret theaters all around New York City. Natalie Douglas. Seth Sikes. Alexis Michelle. Becky O'Brien. These and many other artists have and are singing their favorite Judy Garland songs for grateful audiences of cabaret goers. The first ever major motion picture about Judy Garland was released this year to rave reviews, and the musical Chasing Rainbows just finished five weeks at Papermill Playhouse before a rumored Broadway transfer.
And last night, the cabaret community of New York City honored the world's greatest entertainer with JUDY! A GARLAND OF SONG.
The Rose Theater at Columbus Circle (a part of Jazz at Lincoln Center) was nearly completely full last night. From the box seat provided for me as a member of the press, I was able to look out over the vast room to see every single seat in the theater that wasn't in one of the tiers above my head, and I counted no more than 12 empty chairs. In the sea of enthusiastic faces I spied Karen Akers, Stacy Sullivan was sitting with Meg Flather, Artie Olaisen was up from Dallas, and there was Nicolas King. In the lobby I spotted Sherry Eaker chatting with Sean Patrick Murtagh, KT Sullivan in her most eyecatching hat ever, and there was Richard Skipper dressed to the nines and wearing a pair of ruby slip-ons. It was then that I stopped looking at faces and started looking at shoes. At every turn my eyes lighted on another pair of red shoes, on the women, on the men, on the members of the audience, on the entertainers in the show. Throughout the evening we would see Ruby Rakos in red pumps, Leanne Borghesi in sparkling red stilettos, even Will Nunziata would appear in bejeweled red loafers recently acquired in Florence.
Dang. I left my red shoes at home.
Hosted by the absolutely irreplaceable Klea Blackhurst and the always essential John Fricke, the three hour event could have gone on all night, for all anyone cared: the audience would not have minded if the magnificent talent had sung them all, so thrilling was the evening. Thirteen singers, along with Blackhurst and Fricke, sang 30 songs from Garland's vast cannon. Some were songs that surprised nobody to hear, others were tunes one might have forgotten Garland ever sang, and not one of the performances was an imitation or an attempt at mimicry - every musical offering was refreshingly original, true to the artist performing, and a fitting tribute to Judy, even when a singer was using the original Garland arrangement, a terrifying prospect, it's true, but also a thrilling challenge. To sing a Judy Garland song in her original arrangement? Yes, please.
Throughout the evening artists appeared, elegantly attired, for two numbers each, and the lineup was masterfully arranged to create a build up of excitement as the evening moved on, with new artists interspersed with cabaret veterans, with up-and-comers and legends sharing the stage and the rapt attention of the enthralled audience. Among the young artists who have captured the hearts of the community and the public in recent years, Jennifer Sheehan brought beauty and elegance to performances of "Once in a Lifetime" and "But Not For Me" that were simple and straightforward, filled with emotion and theatricality but devoid of vocal embellishment because, frankly, she doesn't need it, while Nathan Chang surprised all with "Purple People Eater" and a boisterous "The Boy Next Door." Ruby Rakos was not singing as Judy Garland, as she has been in Chasing Rainbows, but her performances of "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" and "I'm Nobody's Baby" showed why she was born to play Judy Garland, and why she was born to be a star, and Hannah Jane Peterson thrilled all with "The Joint is Really Jumpin' at Carnegie Hall" before bringing the entire hall to a hush singing "Friendly Star." Both performances that stunned the audience, proving to all that she was the right person to receive the 2019 Julie Wilson Award presented to her by Ms. Blackhurst and Mr. Fricke. Each of these beautiful young people brought style and grace, personality and individuality to the proceedings, indicating for all that the future of cabaret is in good hands.
Nunziata's in the House! With brothers Anthony and Will on hand, the proceedings are always going to be a more festive, more unpredictable and more easy on the eye. Always brashy and flashy, Will of the Ruby Slippers gave out his own high-spirited "Come Rain or Come Shine" before welcoming a subdued and suave Anthony to the stage for a ballad, after which the twins were reunited for the iconic "Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again" duet, the first time the house was brought down during the evening. It is always a true pleasure to see the Nunziata men in action but I am going to speak personally for a moment by saying that (and I know I'm taking my life in my hands by admitting this) I have always hated the song "You'll Never Walk Alone." Sacrilege, I know, but true. On this night, though, Anthony Nunziata changed my mind, and now I love it -- but only if he is singing it. Well done, Anthony.
You can't have a cabaret convention without jazz singers and you can't have a cabaret convention without Misses Bufford and Douglas. I think it's in the rule book. Like two sides of one glorious coin, these two divas of the cabaret stage showed completely different styles, with Ms. Bufford actually leaping in the air and landing on her rhinestone-studded heels during "Lose That Long Face" before turning everyone sentimental "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." For her own part, Natalie Douglas simply took center stage, swathed in head-to-toe royal blue sequins, stood stock still and inspired tears with "As Long As He Needs Me' as a lead in to what may be the greatest Garland arrangement of all time, the epic "By Myself" recording from the movie "I Could Go On Singing." Douglas knows how to close an act, that's for sure, but when the lights came up from the intermission, people may have been too stunned to stand.
Last year, San Franciscan Leanne Borghesi made her Cabaret Convention debut. Already a fast-growing staple of the New York City cabaret scene, Ms. Borghesi was a natural return invite, and it's a good thing too because who else was going to sing "San Francisco?" And who else would be so clever as to mash it up with "The Trolley Song?" Only Crazy Borghesi, that's who. And since her mash-up counted as one number, the lucky viewers were treated to Ms. Borghesi's stunning and wonderfully dramatic "Alone Together," one of those "oh that's right, Judy did sing that" numbers. What a range of singing and acting skills. Git it, girl.
This year, opera great Stephanie Blythe made her Cabaret Convention debut. A devotee of Garland, Ms. Blythe extolled the joy of being a part of the evening before singing one of the most perfect versions of "It's a New World" to be heard, this side of Judy Garland's own recording. During the evening it was explained that the artists chose their own songs and all that can be said about this is Thank Goodness Stephanie Blythe wanted to sing "It's A New World." The audience is not likely to forget it. They certainly aren't likely to forget what happened next. Reaching in her top, inside her lingerie, "Stage purse!" Ms. Blyther took out a cheat sheet, explaining "I've always wanted to sing this song... but I'll tell you what: it's a lot of mofo words in here" and the audience lost it. Then she took a hanky from the other side of her "stage purse" and with cheat sheet in one hand and hanky in the other, Stephanie Blyther sang the most rousing, eye-popping "I Don't Care" of all time, prompting the first mid-show standing ovation of the night. In this moment, a cabaret star was born. Trust me.
They say you should save the best for last. With all due respect to all of the great artists of the evening, the final performers of the day were Karen Mason and Billy Stritch. Blackhurst and Fricke explained that, upon inviting artists into the lineup, no fewer than four women asked to sing "The Man That Got Away" and Miss Mason was the first one to ask, so Miss Mason was the winner. The real winner, though, was the audience. A siren in red, the stunningly fit Mason paid homage to Judy Garland, to Karen Mason and to the art of singing with an absolutely transformative performance, after which she informed, in inimitable Mason fashion, "I was told not to talk" and then launched into "Chicago," a number perfectly designed for pandemonium. Then, before you knew it, the red of her gown was replaced by the (appropriate) cool blue of Billy Stritch's suit. And the coolest cat, the sexiest singer to sit behind eighty eight keys did the unthinkable: Billy Stritch sang Judy Garland's arrangements of "I Could Go On Singing" and "Just In Time," and both were performed with the requisite perfection one comes to expect from Mr. Stritch. There was applause afterward, but it's any wonder how the crowd mustered the strength to clap after such widespread swooning. Having Mason and Stritch end the lineup was an elegant and appropriate choice, a show stopping choice.
But it didn't stop the show. Klea Blackhurst did. Sharing the fact that she was so excited her song choices for the evening hadn't been usurped by other performers, one wondered what the remarkable Blackhurst would be singing, and though the choices were an initial surprise, as she sang "A Pretty Girl Milking Her Cow" and "When The Sun Comes Out" one thought "Well of course these were her choices." The two numbers were an ideal juxtaposition of Klea's comedy and drama masks, displaying her range and the reason why she is a star. The ovation was instantaneous. This was a fitting close to the lineup of artists who performed last night.
Except that I left someone out. I did it deliberately, for this person is like that last gift in the Wizard's black bag, the one that took Dorothy home. This is the gift to all of us. This is the icon. This is the legend. This is the heart of the cabaret community. His name is Sidney Myer and he is the person who appeared on the stage who, most, embodied the spirit of Judy Garland. Naturally, I'm not talking about the way Sidney sang "When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam" because Sidney would be the first to laugh, upon hearing himself compared to Judy Garland. Because the voices, while both unique and beautiful, are not what is magical about either icon. What made Judy Judy, what makes Sidney Sidney is the heart. It has been said that when Judy Garland sang, people felt like she was singing right to them. That is because when Judy Garland went out there, she opened up her entire being and gave of her heart. I have a private notion that that is why she died - she gave it all away and there was nothing left for her. The Garland Heart is present in every moment of her artistic life. And the Myer heart is prevalent in every moment of Sidney's life. Period. Listening to Sidney Myer tell the story of the first time he saw Judy Garland live, the first time he met Garland, was an ardent moment of storytelling every audience member will recall; and when Sidney Myer sang "It's All For You," that audience got their "Over the Rainbow" and Sidney Myer got the second standing ovation of the night This was the most heartfelt, open, loving performance of the show, maybe of our lives. How fitting (and unsurprising) that it should come from Sidney Myer.
All that remains to be said about Judy! A Garland of Songs is that Mr. Fricke, author of several stunning books that celebrate Miss Garland and her legacy, is a born performer. Singing a version of "That's Entertainment" with specialty lyrics as a duet with Klea, Fricke demonstrated a lovely vocal quality and affable air about him; and his hosting duties were the best I've seen since the heyday of Robert Osborne. Filled with knowledge that he, clearly, loves to impart, knowledge for which he has an obvious passion, Fricke is able to speak extemporaneously, without notes, and entertainingly, as no other person than that person that he is. He is charming as a long Sunday afternoon, smart as a whip, incredibly spontaneous and fun, so much so that when the final moment of the evening got messed up by a technical gaffe, he took a breath and, in one inspired moment, fixed it.
Blackhurst and Fricke turned the final spotlight of the evening over to... Judy Garland. As they left the stage for a last time, a spotlight landed on a sole microphone, center stage, as the sound of Judy Garland's recorded voice began to sing "Over the Rainbow"... for four sentences. Then the recording stopped. A stunned audience sat in silence. Moments passed. The sound of Klea Blackhurst's heels sounded on the wooden stage. Blackhurst and Fricke were back on, asking the booth if the problem was one that could be fixed. Appearing apparent that there was no finale, John Fricke turned to the theater full of people and said "You're on!" A room full of people, some friends, many strangers, began to sing.
"Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high..."
This was a truly magical night.
Carole J. Bufford
Photos by Stephen Mosher