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Review: The Mabel Mercer Foundation's 26th Annual Cabaret Convention Comes Home to Town Hall, Opening Night, October 13

In October 1989, four years after he founded The Mable Mercer Foundation, cabaret publicist and promoter Donald Smith launched the first Cabaret Convention at New York's Town Hall. The now four-day event eventually moved to Lincoln Center's Rose Hall, but due to renovations this year at the more uptown revue, this year's 26th Annual Convention was back at its old West 43rd Street stomping grounds.

Since Donald Smith died in March 2012, the Mercer Foundation's Artistic Director and de-facto Convention Producer has been cabaret star KT Sullivan, and for Monday night's opening show she greeted the audience, in measured tempo, with the infectious enthusiasm of Cole Porter ("Another Opening, Another Show") and Irving Berlin ("There's No Business Like Show Business"). Sullivan provided an effective, entertaining onramp to an evening that featured experienced American and European artists from cabaret and theater and relative cabaret newbies who've recently made a mark on the scene.


With Jon Weber on piano, jazz vocalist Allan Harris offered a palpably romantic "I'll Be Easy to Find" (Teri Thornton/David Baker) in tribute to Johnny Mathis (who turned 80 last week) and Billy Strayhorn's yearning "Something to Live For." Harris's impeccable, seemingly effortless phrasing and focused, low-key performance should be an example to singers who feel everything should be sung like an 11 o'clock number in a Broadway musical. Sean Harkness' guitar stroked heartstrings. The audience was rapt.

Karen Oberlin sang Paul Simon's evocative "Train in the Distance" in appealing duet with Sean Harkness (on guitar). The vocal shush-shush of propulsion and fading, train whistle woo-woo harmonies are very cool. (Find this on their excellent 2014 CD, A Wish.) Perhaps the most successful number from Oberlin's current Elvis Costello show, "Veronica," made the best of her mellow alto and warmth. (Jon Weber-piano, Steve Doyle-bass)

One of the Convention's perpetual treasures, Sidney Myer, reassured us he did NOT have a CD in the lobby. "You're welcome." (I dispute his wry opinion of our receptivity. Everyone would buy it, Sidney!) "Poor Little Daisy McGee"--There's no ring on her finger/her rings are all under her eyes--fell in love with a hosiery drummer who, just like his stockings ran. Leave it to Meyer to excavate such a gem, delivered deadpan with sublime comic finesse.

The winner of this year's Julie Wilson Award (generously underwritten by Peter and Linda Hanson) was Kristoffer Lowe (photo left), whose Harry Warren show You're Getting To Be a Habit With Me is currently lighting up The Metropolitan Room. Lowe's tandem "We're In the Money" and "With Plenty of Money and You" (terrific arrangement by pianist Tracy Stark) was period perfect--easy and megaphone-smooth, conjuring tap lines, breadlines, and necessary greed. Lowe then delivered a theatrical version of "The Impossible Dream" (Mitch Leigh/Joe Darion), which escaped both its chestnut status and usual volume to become wrenchingly beautiful. And that last, unexpected high note was wowza.

Recipient of this year's Mabel Mercer Award, marvelous writer/performer Amanda McBroom (photo top) enacted Jacque Brel's rarely heard "Early Morning Hangers On." She sang it in her recent Feinstein's/54 Below show, Up Close and Personal, and in my BroadwayWorld review I observed that "The song is spoken, sung, shouted . . . vehement, poetic, cinematic." With collaborator/pianist Michele Brourman, McBroom then offered the haunting, western saga, "Amanda" (Michele Brourman-piano, Jered Egan- bass).

McBroom credited her husband George Ball (making his Convention debut) with teaching her how to sing and tell a story, and he followed with "Old Habits Die Hard" (from McBroom's 1993 musical Heartbeats), which he sang in Up Close and Personal. Again, in my BWW review I wrote: "Ball's gravelly, muscular voice and wrenching performance inhabit the character. Every inch an actor, he's tender, regretful, ashamed." Watching Amanda onstage watching George is completely endearing (Michele Brourman-piano, Jered Egan-bass). McBroom closed the show, leading the company and some of the audience in singing perhaps the artist's best-known song, "The Rose."

Other performances:

Frans Bloem (Convention debut) rendered a dark "La Boheme" (Robert Bosscher-piano) . . . perpetually barefoot Lauren Fox sang from her familiar 1960s/'70s shows (Jon Weber-piano & vocals, Peter Calo-guitar and vocals, Ritt Henn-bass and vocals) . . . Broadway's Vivian Reed (Photo, Convention debut) unleashed her show-stopping voice with "God Bless the Child" (William Foster McDaniel-piano) . . . Christine Andreas performed iconic Edith Piaf songs, which, though nobody does it better, we've heard again and again and again (Kenny Ascher-piano) . . . Stefan Bednarczyk (Convention debut) offered a stressed version of Noel Coward's "The Bar On The Piccolo Marina" . . . Rebekah Lowin chose pristine material from her Eva Cassidy show (Peter Calo-guitar, the splendid Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf-cello) . . . Maxine Linehan made an 11 o'clock number out of the understated "Mad About the Boy," showcasing her pipes more appropriately on Stephen Sondheim's "Not A Day Goes By" . . . Actor/vocalist Joshua Dixon (Convention debut) sang a wonderful version of Stephen Sondheim's "Giants in the Sky" and a too-dense rendition of Cole Porter's "Experiment" (Rick Jensen-piano).

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)