BWW Review: The 28th New York Cabaret Convention Kicks Off Its Opening Night With A Bang It Is Unable To Sustain
During an evening when Mabel Mercer Foundation President and New York Cabaret Convention Producer KT Sullivan devoted a number of opening night spots in the 28th year of the four-day extravaganza (October 16-19 at Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center) to a younger generation of singers and a few veterans making their Convention debuts, the Grande Dame of Cabaret was the star of the night.
Making her 13th appearance at the Convention ("It's my lucky number," she announced), the indefatigable and ageless Marilyn Maye, who will turn 90 next April, showed performers of every age how it's done. In smooth and strong voice and with boundless energy, Maye was a marvel on a medley of "Most Unusual Day," "Day In, Day Out," "Too Marvelous For Words," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," "Jeepers Creepers," and "Come Rain or Come Shine." It was a standing ovation right out of the box.
Unfortunately, except for a few lovely performances, the three-hour-plus show went mainly downhill from there. After Ms. Maye's tour-de-force, Sullivan introduced two not-ready-for-prime-cabaret-time singers with teenagers Greg Gropper and Lyric Peterson, both of whom displayed decent pipes if not stage presence. The Cabaret Convention isn't the time to wheel out the newbies when there are probably dozens of veteran accomplished New York cabaret performers who've never graced the Convention Playbill.
Youth was better served with actor/singer Adam Shapiro's playful invoking of some Yiddish on "Bei Mir Bist Schoen," before offering a humorous "Pennies From Heaven" parody, "Bennies From Heaven," about a soldier who returns from war only to find out his wife is pregnant and he's dubious it could have been an immaculate conception.
The sensual and statuesque concert and cabaret veteran Luba Mason, of Slovakian descent, was luminous on "Croatian Folk Song," before offering a powerful rendition of Cole Porter's "Love For Sale," featuring a masterful vibraphone-led arrangement from her musical director Felipe Fournier.
Alan Harris' soft rendition of "It Was A Very Good Year" was more somnolent than subtle, with his guitar playing almost an afterthought. But he made a comeback with the title song from "Cross That River" his musical about a runaway slave settling in the West.
Carole J. Bufford's star has been flashing like a comet since the beginning of this decade, so it wasn't a surprise to learn at the end of Act I that she'd been named this year's recipient of the Donald F. Smith Award (named for the Mabel Mercer Foundation founder). As usual, Bufford blew the Rose Hall roof off on "Chicago" and "The Man I Love," but with every show her singing is becoming increasingly affected and she should probably reign that in before the vocal pyrotechnics get tired.
Veteran cabaret star Karen Oberlin opened Act II, and after floundering a bit on Frank Loesser's pithy and wordy "Hamlet," she recovered with a moving medley of "Night and Day"/ "The Night We Called It A Day." The most stirring performance of Act II was Corinna Sowers Adler's vocal of her own mashup arrangement of Stephen Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" with John Lennon's "Imagine." Nineteen-year-old prodigy Julius Rodriguez supported adroitly on piano, while four of Sowers Adler's students provided ethereal, if non-descript, backup vocals.
In an art form that can seem short on younger male performers, it was a treat to hear solid (if unspectacular) turns from clarinet-playing singer Danny Bacher (channeling one of his heroes, Louie Jordan, on "If It's Love You Want Baby, That's Me"), Joshua Lance Dixon (delightful on a smooth version of the Dean Martin signature song, "Everybody Loves Somebody"), and rookie Tommy J. Dose getting the Rose Hall audience's attention with his strong vocal on "Once Upon a Time." In spite of having the jazzy Jon Weber on piano, Jacob Storms was less effective on a pedestrian rendition of "Blue Skies."
On the flip side musically was Tanya Moberly's cheeky but a tad strident "Chuck E's In Love," featuring Ritt Henn on bass. A fine choice for a rock show or open mic but not exactly a fit for an older cabaret audience weaned on the Great American Songbook. Host KT Sullivan took on a medley of songs from KISS ME KATE, and was especially charming on "Always True to You in My Fashion" but just barely hit the highest notes on "Wunderbar."
The finale went to Vivian Reed, this year's recipient of the Mabel Mercer Award. But while Reed was her usual powerful and energetic self, her somewhat over-the-top pop/rock 'n' roll set, including "Up Where We Belong" and "Higher and Higher" seemed antithetical to the cabaret style of the woman symbolizing Reed's award. Reed is staging a Lena Horne tribute show at Feinstein's/54 Below beginning on November 8, and one wonders why she didn't preview the show with a song that would have been much more appropriate for this Convention and its audience.
Overall, night one of this year's Cabaret Convention was the definition of a "mixed bag." Producer and host Sullivan needs to get a better handle on the performer lineup, the songs they deliver, and the pacing and length of these shows.
Stephen Hanks is a freelance writer and the former Cabaret Editor/Reviewer of BroadwayWorld.