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Review: The Mabel Mercer Foundation's 26th Annual Cabaret Convention Comes Home to Town Hall, Night Three, October 15

For the third night of this year's Cabaret Convention at Town Hall, the uber-enthusiastic Karen Mason hosted Life Is a Cabaret (Directed by Barry Kleinbort) in celebration of long time collaborators, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. Introduced to each other by their mutual music publisher in 1962, the team's first Broadway show was 1965's Flora the Red Menace in which Liza Minnelli made her Broadway debut and with which the three began a long association. Their last together (Kander is alive and hopefully writing), was 2015's The Visit starring Chita Rivera, a production Ebb (who died in 2004) unfortunately didn't live to see.

Kander and Ebb's best known musicals are Cabaret and Chicago, both of which seem to run forever on popular appeal, but they wrote many others, a wide selection of which were represented at Thursday night's show.


Mason opened the evening with "All That Jazz" (Chicago), but it was her later rendition of "Colored Lights" (The Rink) which best showcased not only the vocalist but the actress. Her stop/start misremembering (in character) and slowly built exuberance hit this one out of the park. (Christopher Denny-piano)

For Robert Creighton's "Life of the Party" (The Happy Time), the thespian instantly became an inebriated, vaudevillian-shaded braggart. "Early in my career I got asked to play a lot of leading men, but the tall, dark, and handsome thing is hard to maintain . . ." quipped the character actor. His version of "Mr. Cellophane " (Chicago), replete with introductory monologue, took us from humor to pathos, to anger and despair. (Mark Hummel-piano)

Sally Mayes as Fräulein Schneider singing "So What?!" (Cabaret) evidenced just the right pragmatic resignation. Difficult octave changes were handled with complete naturalness and elan. (Tex Arnold-piano) Lina Koutrakos' (photo right) "Life Is" (Zorba) was earthy, lusty, authentic. Every lyric seemed to rise from her guts. The song reached out and grabbed us. (Rick Jensen-piano, Kostos Psarros on bouzouki was an inspired choice.)

A surprise addition to the program, Sandy Stewart, appeared to perform "My Coloring Book," which the vocalist introduced on The Perry Como show in 1962. For most of us this particular authorship was a revelation. What was then the story of a girl here became betrayal of a woman later in life. Were it not for the "walked away" line, these might be the words of a recent widow. Understated and effective. (Bill Charlap-piano)

Jim Brochu's (photo left) utterly charming duet of "Go Visit Your Grandmother" (70, Girls, 70) with Steve Ross (also at the piano) will, one hopes, be included in the collaborators' show-in-development, Two Guys and A Grand. Forty-four years of friendship is reflected in adroit phrasing, innate finesse, and infectious pleasure taken in performing together. Can't wait! Ross follows with a pristine solo of "Only Love" (Zorba), heart on his sleeve; deeply moving. The man plays piano with the impact of a symphony orchestra.

Suitably the grand finale, Marilyn Maye offered an affecting, no stress, no fuss interpretation of "Maybe This Time" (Cabaret) with her own iconoclastic phrasing (always in service of the lyric). She thanked The Mabel Mercer Foundation's founder Donald Smith for inviting her to participate in the 2005 Convention, starting a "whole new career" for her in New York and then sang it: "New York, New York" (from the 1977 film of the same name). Every word came from the heart. Back 'atcha, Marilyn.

Other performances:

Karen Ziemba's "Willing to Ride," as the original Rita Racine in Steel Pier, caught both bright hopes and exhaustion in a manifest dance marathon (Joshua Zecher-Ross-piano); Stearns Matthews offered a deft, delicate rendition of "My Own Space" from The Act (Christopher Denny-piano); Amra Faye Wright (photo right) showed us her unflashy, comedic side in an extremely wry duet of "Class" (Chicago) with the delightfully deadpan Steve Ross (also at the piano). Lauren Stanford (Convention debut) sang a completely lovely rendition of "A Quiet Thing" (Flora the Red Menace), conveying both the character's freshness and her surprise (Laurence Yurman-piano); T. Oliver Reid's choices from Kiss of the Spider Woman emerged dark and loaded with subtext (Laurence Yurman-piano); Penny Fuller (Convention debut) sang a medley from Cabaret replete with Sally Bowles's rarely heard British accent and a pretty fair take on that of Lotte Leyna (Paul Greenwood-piano and vocal, Ritt Henn-bass).

Photos by Lou Montesano, Still Rock Photography

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From This Author - Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of ... (read more about this author)