BWW Reviews: Cabaret Stars and Mabel Mercer Foundation Salute a Bountiful Group of Centenary Celebrating Legends at Weill Recital Hall
This year is the centennial of entertainment legends such as vocalists Billie Holliday and Edith Piaf, singer-actors Frank Sinatra and Alice Faye, composers Billy Strayhorn and Bart Howard, and pianist Cy Walter. In its annual tribute concert, The Mabel Mercer Foundation celebrated all these artists in 1915: It Was a Very Good Year at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall, presenting a great variety of musical talent, each with a personal take.
The entertaining evening was introduced by author/raconteur, Rex Reed (left in photo above), whose pertinent facts and colorful anecdotes set the scene. Reed's story about being a poor, young student determined to see Harry Belafonte at The Blue Angel is a gem. It seems a chicken sandwich was $5, a price he equates with $50 today. Panicked about not having the money, Reed then learned that a new comedy team known as Nichols and May was replacing Belafonte. Though the unknown duo would turn out to be wonderful, no one at home would envy him. Miserably, he looked around trying to make up his mind what to do. At the piano, Bart Howard perceived the boy's plight and took care of the check. Years later, Reed told the story at a benefit where Belafonte was appearing. The vocalist walked on stage and stuffed a $5 bill firmly in Reed's pocket. Who lives this kind of life?!
Later, Reed returns to reflect on Billie Holiday ("The mark of her longevity is how many people imitate her") and to regale us with an up close and personal story about Alice Faye, and to sing "No Love, No Nothin'" (Harry Warren/Robin Leo), which was introduced by Faye in The Gang's All Here: No love, no nothin'/Until my baby comes home/No sir! No nothin'/As long as baby must roam . . . Reed sang with effectively low-key despondence.
Allan Harris (center in photo top) decked out to beat the band, applied one of the sexiest, smokiest voices in the business to numbers by Ervin Drake, Bart Howard, and Billy Strayhorn. The performer seems to roll notes inside his mouth before they exit mellow and warm. He takes his time, reflecting on lyrics, savoring melody, innately epitomizing cool. A small, guttural laugh before the chorus of "Lush Life" exemplified a style that always sounds genuine.
Alexis Cole (right in photo top) self-accompanied on two Strayhorn numbers which she aptly described as "Perfectly establishing the nostalgia and melancholy we associate with the writer." "Day Dream" delivered strains of "Satin Doll" and "Take the A Train" woven into its intro, glissando piano, and elegant vocal control. "Lotus Blossom" was a solitary waltz dancing on bowed bass and faint, shushing consonants. The lady knows what she's doing.
Bill Zeffiro (piano/vocal, left in photo) and Valerie Lemon (center in photo) offered a tandem "On the First Warm Day" and "My Love is a Wanderer" (both Bart Howard). When Zeffiro breezily sang, I'll come a'callin/And bring you a big bouquet, Lemon looked surprised and flattered. When she sang that her love suggested they meet in Shannon in the spring, Lemon overflowed with anticipation. We take an emotional journey with her.
Vocalist Joyce Breach (right in photo above) comes at melody from unexpected angles, yet never loses the heart and soul of a song. Cy Walter's "Some Fine Day" was classy, smooth, and deft. A tremulous "I Should Care" (recorded by Sinatra) emoted so clearly, one could hear the tears. Breach quoted Artie Shaw's reaction to Frank Sinatra: "That son of a bitch believes what he's singing." One might say the same of Breach.
Jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein (left)--"I have to admit, I'm not particularly comfortable speaking like this and by this, I mean with sincerity"--introduces a Cy Walter arrangement. "Walter would take standards and make them fresh and interesting to listen to . . ." His astonishing, up-tempo rendition of "This Can't Be Love" (Rodgers and Hart)--with Jon Weber on piano (far left in photo) and Saadi Zain on bass--melodically zigzags and loop de loops. Overlapping themes appear to be mischievously exploring a playground.
KT Sullivan (Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, right in photo above) closes the show with Bart Howard's "Fly Me To The Moon." Apparently the author, who began writing because Mabel Mercer needed new material, personally hawed his work to publishers. Upon hearing this, one know-it-all agreed to publish the song if Howard would change the title/lyric to "Take Me To The Moon." Sullivan knows from what she speaks. Her living room boasts Howard's piano. The song emerges like champagne bubbles.
Also featuring: Jed Distler, Gay Marshall, Marcus Simione, Lumiri Tubo, and Merrill Grant.
Photos by Stephen Sorokoff