CABARET LIFE NYC: It's So Long, Farewell, Au Wiedersehen Reviewing For Me, But Meet & Greet BWW's New Team of Cabaret Critics
Cabaret Features and Commentary By Stephen Hanks
My career as a cabaret show reviewer began as a complete fluke. It was four years ago this past October--my birthday to be exact--when my wife asked what fun thing I might like to do that night to celebrate. Since I wasn't exactly a complete stranger to cabaret, having participated in a few performance workshops at the 92nd Street Y that led to one-off group gigs in venues such as the Laurie Beechman and Don't Tell Mama, I'd occasionally get Facebook event invites from friends more deeply embedded in the cabaret subculture. I remembered reading about an open mic/variety show at the Iguana Restaurant on West 54th Street hosted by an interesting looking and sounding creature named Dana Lorge and suggested to the bride it might be a fun deal to check out. At the very least, we'd eat Mexican and drink a lot of Sangria.
When we arrived at the large upstairs room that Wednesday night, we took seats at a table along the wall opposite the bar and the first person to greet us was a woman named Mary Lahti (who would go on to win the MAC Award in 2014 for "Best Female Debut"), who was there to sing with her piano playing husband Jim. Mary was immediately warm and welcoming, which was a pleasant way to start the evening. Over the next two and a half hours, we heard every manner of singer; pretty much the great, the good, the bad, and the ugly of New York cabaret--and it was a total hoot. But what made the experience especially enjoyable was the congenial atmosphere of a room filled with regulars, the low-pressure performing environment, the high quality musicianship of the pianist Barry Levitt, and the show's host Dana Lorge, a beautiful, charming, funny, wacky MC if there ever was one. I didn't sing that night (the performer roster was pre-determined), but since I hadn't yet gotten the cabaret performing bug out of my system I knew I had to come back to Wednesday Night at the Iguana, which I did--often.
But on that first visit, something caught my eye on the way out. As a magazine junkie since I was a teenager and a magazine editor my entire professional life, I picked up a copy of a little digest-sized publication called Cabaret Scenes that featured an attractive white-haired woman named Jamie deRoy on the cover. Over the next few days, I scanned the magazine--especially the reviews--and checked out the website, which posted much longer versions of the reviews than appeared in the print edition. I thought to myself, "I wonder if I could do this? How cool would it be to attend cabaret shows all over town and then critique them?" At that point in my career, I was mostly editing and smoothing out the work of other writers and I desperately needed a creative outlet for my own writing. As much as I love music, everything from Al Jolson to Elton John, from Broadway to Blues, writing about singers and musicians performing at New York nightclubs would be a great kick--and also somewhat intimidating.
I was just insecure enough about my storehouse of musical knowledge and incredibly respectful of the entertainment criticism art form, that I had doubts about whether I could pull it off. Sure, after more than 30 years as a magazine journalist I had confidence in my ability as a reporter and researcher, and knew I would have to prepare my butt off to be taken seriously as a critic. After weighing the pros and cons, my adventurous, what-have-I-got-to-lose attitude took over (I'm nothing if not big on reinventing myself), so I contacted Cabaret Scenes' Editor Frank Dain and sent him my resume and a few clips. The next day he welcomed me to his reviewing team. I tried not to think that perhaps he was taking a shot with a newbie reviewer because I would gladly accept not getting paid.
The first show I reviewed for Cab Scenes couldn't have been more ideal for someone who has loved older women since I was a kid. It starred an attractive and sassy 60ish-year-old lady from Massachusetts named Patricia Fitzpatrick who staged a show at Don't Tell Mama called Cougars on the Prowl. I had already met the charming "cougar" at Iguana a few weeks before. With Dana Lorge and another Iguana regular Helena Grenot as Patricia's co-stars, I had to review it (quite positive, by the way) and it was published on the Cab Scenes website in mid-November 2010. My cabaret-reviewing career was launched.
In the four years since, I've reviewed more than 200 shows and written a couple of dozen columns, commentaries, and features for Cabaret Scenes and BroadwayWorld.com, where I became the lead cabaret reviewer and columnist in late March 2012. Writing reviews for a website that gets by far more traffic to its cabaret pages than any other site covering cabaret in New York has been a creative joy, especially since it led to putting together the BroadwayWorld New York Cabaret Awards and hosting the Awards show (photo right from last year's show), which I'm looking forward to doing for the third straight year in late February at Joe's Pub. I'm especially proud of the fact that since I joined BWW, the cabaret section of the site has become much more prominent (you used to need a team of archaeologists to find the cabaret page links) and has infinitely more page views than in years past. That's a great development for everyone involved in New York cabaret.
A couple of months ago, after four years of haunting cabaret rooms, often lurking in corners scribbling observations on set lists, I decided that I was reviewed out on a number of levels. With a full-time job, family obligations, and other projects I wanted to launch (some in cabaret), I had hit the reviewing wall. I felt I had met my personal challenges to become a credible critic and a better writer. And besides, the BWW cabaret section itself needed more voices than just mine. It was time for a transition and that time is now. But while it may be so long, farewell, au wiedersehen reviewing, I still plan on writing about cabaret and will continue on as the Editor of BWW's New York cabaret section. I'll just be focusing more on writing special profiles, interviews, and commentaries in which observations about performers and their shows will still infiltrate the prose. You won't be losing my judgmental-ness that fast.
Since I'd no longer be attending individual shows strictly to review them, I set about on a quest to scout and recruit some new writing and reviewing blood to build on BWW's New York cabaret section and make it even better. As you've probably noticed in the past couple of weeks, my new recruits have already posted critiques on the site and the volume of reviewed shows has increased almost exponentially. Okay, perhaps doubled or tripled. Anyway, as a group, the mission of the BroadwayWorld.com New York cabaret reviewing staff is clear. We want to offer critiques that are timely, honest, passionate, fair, constructive, authoritative, analytical, insightful, and in-depth. But most importantly, we're hoping that the reviews will be entertaining reads for anyone interested in the cabaret art form, which is one of the best entertainment genres and entertainment values in New York City. We sincerely hope we achieve our goals.
I'm thrilled that we've put together a wonderful mix of people--three men and three women--with their own distinctive writing styles and points of view. A few are veteran reviewers who also write for other publications, while two are also performers who are passionate about cabaret and writing and also happen to be darn good writers (and we will do our very best to avoid any conflicts of interest in the assignment of reviews). Although they will all cover cabaret shows, their personal musical interests and tastes are so varied that BWW will be able to cover an eclectic mix shows from The Duplex to Don't Tell Mama, From 54 Below to Stage 72, from The Metropolitan Room to The Cutting Room, from the Laurie Beechman to Birdland, and most everything at every club in between.
So now it's time to meet our contestants, er, new reviewing team:
David Clarke has had a lifelong love and passion for the performing arts, and has been writing about theatre for years. While living in Houston in 2012, he joined BroadwayWorld.com to run their Houston-based site and in June 2013, he became BWW's Editor-in-Chief of Theatre Recordings. David also covers theater for Out.com and HoustonPress and currently works at Lincoln Center as Interim Publicity Associate. He's jazzed to be covering New York cabaret for BWW. "I think cabaret is a fascinating art form because of how truly multifaceted and broad the definition can be," he says, "and my favorite aspect of cabaret is seeing artists take the grandiose risks that Broadway and Off-Broadway shows don't often allow."
Alix Cohen's writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics, and then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she's also a theater aficionado; a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League, The NY Press Club in addition to being a member of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs. Currently Alix additionally writes for Cabaret Scenes, TheaterPizzazz.com, and Woman Around Town. Alix's pieces have also appeared in The New York Post, The National Observer's Playground Magazine, and Pasadena Magazine, and she is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.
John Hogland has been a respected entertainment writer covering cabaret, theater and the recording industry through reviews, interviews and feature stories for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in many outlets including After Dark, Private Lives, NY Native, The Greenwich Village Press, Night & Day, The Village Voice, Cabaret Hotline, NiteLifeExchange, Theaterscene.net, Cabaret Scenes Magazine and Back Stage, where he wrote the "Bistro Bits" column and features for more than 12 years. John served on the Board of Directors of MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs) for 12 years and also co-produced the MAC and the Back Stage Bistro Awards. Through the years, he has been a consultant to several major nightclubs in Manhattan including Tavern-on-the-Green, The Algonquin, Cafe' Carlyle, Arci's Place, Broadway Baby Café, and as entertainment manager for Pierre Cardin's 250- seat Maxim's. Consequently, he booked many diverse artists' including: The Gipsy Kings, Shirley Horn, Lilias White, Morgana King, Kaye Ballard, Laurie Beechman, Jane Olivor, Sylvia Syms, B.J. Crosby, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Pat Cooper, Ruth Brown, Lainie Kazan, Linda Eder and Betty Buckley. He now manages the listings website AfterDark-NYC.com.
"I'm extremely happy to join the cabaret reviewing team at BroadwayWorld as it expands its coverage of the art form," says John.
Andrew Martin has long had a passion for writing about film history, cabaret and the live performing arts and has spent nearly a quarter-of-a-century as a cabaret journalist and entertainment features contributor for such publications as Back Stage, New England Entertainment Digest, the New York Native weekly newspaper, and Night & Day Magazine. From 1991 through 1997, he served as the publisher and managing editor for CaB Magazine, whose staff of 29 produced articles and reviews about cabaret, theater, film, jazz, recordings, dining, wine, travel, and other cultural media. He also reviews cabaret for NiteLifeExchange.com, and can be heard on radio twice weekly on stations WPAT 930 AM and YTP Radio. His first book, All for the Best: How Godspell Transferred from Stage to Screen, was published by BearManor Media in 2011.
"My initial inspiration for writing about cabaret came when I was about 21 and from the late Bob Harrington, who wrote the column "Bistro Bits" for Back Stage and subsequently wrote for the New York Post," says Andrew. "Bob later became a good friend and somewhat of a mentor and made me believe I was good at expressing myself regarding cabaret (the negative things about a show as well as the positive), His biggest piece of advice (shortly before we lost him to AIDS) was, 'Don't ever give up on this. You're too talented at it to ever quit, so hang in there and keep going.'"
Billie Roe returned to the NYC Cabaret scene five years ago after a long hiatus from having played most of the New York clubs in the 1970s and early '80s, including The Grand Finale, Reno Sweeney's, Trax, The Copa, and Les Mouches. Billie holds a BFA in Acting from Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA., and a MFA in Playwrighting from the Actors Studio Drama School, New York, as well as being a founding member of the Playwrights Directors Workshop (PDW) at the Actors Studio in New York where she workshops her plays. Billie is the recipient of the 2014 MAC Award for Female Vocalist, the 2014 Bistro Award for Outstanding Tribute Show 1978 NYC UNDERGROUND, which she wrote and performed at The Metropolitan Room and The Duplex in New York. This act was named in the 'Top 13 List of 2013' by Edge Magazine. In 2012, Billie not only won the 2012 MetroStar singing completion at the Metropolitan Room, she received the Bistro Award for "Outstanding Theme Show" for her show Dangerous Women: Life In Film Noir which she wrote and performed at Don't Tell Mama. Billie currently serves on the MAC Board of Directors.
"I love recognizing and supporting cabaret talent, both new and established," says Billie. "It is the greatest high I have ever known (except being a mother to my very talented daughter now living in LA pursuing her dreams), which is why I so enjoy reviewing cabaret for BroadwayWorld.
Remy Block is a Brooklyn, NY based singer, writer and educator. She recently performed her new solo show at Don't Tell Mama, On a Lonely Road...Travelin' with Joni, featuring songs of Joni Mitchell woven with personal stories depicting self-discovery in changing landscapes and locales. In 2013, her cabaret performances included: Pull my Mistletoe, performed with her cabaret trio, Impending Bloom (with Cory Farrow and Rachel Winell) at Don't Tell Mama; and Sing Me a Story, a group show at The Duplex. Remy also writes and performs original songs, can play the accordion, and sings with local bands Bubble and American Ambulance, and as a guest singer in various pop/rock tribute shows and revues around NYC. Past NYC work includes performances and recordings with her original band ARTMICE and solo original performances with accordion, at CBGBs Gallery, Pete's Candy Store, PS 122, and Sidewalk Cafe. Remy, who also works as a private tutor (brookylnlearningdtudio.net), received her MA in English Education from NYU, MFA in Writing and Poetics from the Naropa Institute, and BA in English Literature from Wesleyan University.
"I wanted to write for BroadwayWorld because I wanted to pay attention to the craft of Cabaret in a sharper way and connect more deeply with the art form," says Remy. "Also, as a writer, I wanted a chance to be published."
One final note: Many thanks to BWW Editor Christina Mancuso for her terrific and tireless work posting all my reviews and stories at all hours of the day and night, and for getting our new reviewing team set up and ready to go. You're the best, Christina!