CABARET LIFE NYC: Listmania Redux! My Best/Favorite 20 Shows & Performances of 2014, With 30 'Bests & Mosts' of An Exciting Year in Cabaret
Cabaret Features and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
As the days dwindled down to a precious few in 2014, a few cabaret goers and performers in what is affectionately but also self-mockingly called the "cabaret community" would sidle up and ask if I was planning my annual end-of-the year "Best Of" column, similar to the "Top 20 Bests and Favorites" piece over the first half of the year I posted back in early July. I would respond in the negative with very reasonable and believable excuses, but the truth is I didn't want to reveal my "Bests" of the year until the voting for the 2014 BroadwayWorld New York Cabaret Awards had ended. There's enough baggage and backstage whispering that comes with administering the BWW Awards, so I wasn't about to publish any opinions that might influence the vote while it was in process. I may be crazy but I'm not masochistic.
But now all bets are off. You want lists? I'll give you lists.
The 20 cabaret shows highlighted here are MY best/favorite shows and/or performances of 2014. Of course, many critically acclaimed or highly praised or merely very good shows won't be on this list because there were dozens of terrific shows I didn't get to see (like many of the alt-cabarets at Joe's Pub or the jazzier sets at Iridium or the bold-faced celebrity concerts at 54 Below). But I did attend around 100 cabarets this past year and wrote reviews about most of them, so I think this list and the opinions therein are, shall we say, "credible." As mentioned when I offered a similar list at the halfway point of 2013, the shows and performers cited here aren't just those that might have been the most technically on-point and eminently entertaining, they also had to be likeable and exude "The Five Cs of Great Cabaret": Singing, Set List, Script, Stage Presence, and Showman-- or Show Woman--ship.
A number of shows from the first half of 2014 were exceptional enough to also make this composite year-end list, but a few got bumped by stellar second-half of the year performances or because they had been staged the last two months of 2013 (I had counted those in the earlier assessment because they were eligible for 2014 BWW Awards). This "Best/Favorite 20" list only covers shows mounted in 2014. And, by the way, this is not a "Best-Of" ranking from 1 to 20, so the list is in alphabetical order by the performer's last name.
Stopping at a Best 20, however, isn't enough fun. There were countless individual shows and performances that also deserved to be recognized one way or another. So I came up with an additional eclectic and quirky list of 30 "Bests" and "Mosts" that are totally arbitrary and self-indulgent but manage to give credit where it's definitely due. Here's hoping that 2015 is another very good year for New York cabaret.
Stephen Hanks' "Best and Favorite" 20 Shows/Performances of 2014
Carole J. Bufford: Shades of Blue and Boulevard of Broken Dreams
Okay, so this is how I get to fudge the Top 20 number to include more shows right off the bat. The Georgia Peach with the Bodacious Belt performed not one, but two, standout shows last year. First came her early 2014 run of Shades at the Metropolitan Room that drew critical raves. It didn't seem possible Bufford could top that, but she did with Broken Dreams, a one-off at 54 Below in late October that showed off a total talent package that seems to raise her personal performance bar each time on stage. If that wasn't enough, she produced (along with Eric Yves Garcia) one of the most delightful holiday shows in years with A Christmas Carol and a New Year's Yves at the Laurie Beechman. If Carole J. keeps this up we won't be seeing her doing cabaret much longer--she'll be doing musical theater on Broadway or all round the country.
Ann Hampton Callaway: Turning Points
She's the 2014 BWW Award winner for "Performer of the Year," and, amazingly, that recognition doesn't even include this show because it was staged at 54 Below during Thanksgiving weekend, which was after the deadline for 2014 shows to be nominated. The current "Queen" of cabaret may be the only performer who could get a show on my earlier "Top 20" (Songs I Wish I'd Written) and knock her own self off the year-end list with an even better show. Turning Points was personal and passionate and exhibited the full range of Callaway's vocal talent. It's already an early favorite for a 2015 BWW Award nomination for "Best Show, Celebrity Female." The woman is re-defining what it means to be "on a roll."
54 Below Sings 1776
I admittedly didn't get to see many of the 54 Below Sings . . . series of variety shows, but I'd be surprised if any of them would have topped this terrific tribute to a great musical the club staged during July 4th weekend. The entire cast--featuring Michael McCormick, Lucia Spina, Rob Maitner, Ben Crawford, Paul Michael Valley, Daniel Marcus, Aaron Ramey, Kathleen Monteleone, Patrick Mellen, Jacob Hoffman, Brian Charles Rooney, David Allen Marshall, Adam Shapiro, and Musical Director Jacob Yates--produced fireworks and they breathed new life into a score that, if not among the classics, has always been very underrated.
Meg Flather: Meg & John
Long one of New York cabaret's most underrated singers and performers, Meg Flather displayed her total talent package during this show at Don't Tell Mama before the end of 2014. With her go-to guitarist John Mettam serving as supportive musical partner, Flather showcased her lovely voice, her charming sense of humor, and her affinity for writing clever, witty, and poignant original songs. As BroadwayWorld cabaret reviewer Remy Block wrote, the show is "deliciously anti-cabaret" (but in a good way). Flather brings the show back to DTM on March 1 at 5 pm.
Kathleen France & Dawn Derow: Revolution
This wasn't a show about calling for a revolution because they want to save the world, but sexy songstresses Kathleen France and Dawn Derow produced one of the best duo acts of the year with their musical commentary on war, peace, and patriotism, with a nice touch of satire thrown in for good measure. France and Derow exhibited the chemistry of a finely tuned regiment on tunes such as "The Gun Song" from Sondheim's Assassins and on a medley of classic protest songs. They also excelled on their solos without sacrificing the duo momentum. Fittingly, they're bringing the show back to The Duplex on George Washington's Birthday, Feb. 22 at 6:30 pm, and then again on March 15 at 6:30 pm.
Annie Hughes: Times Like This . . .
As a relative newbie to the New York cabaret scene, I didn't know anything about Annie Hughes when some performers insisted I attend her one-off show at Don't Tell Mama in early October. When it was over I was wishing I'd seen this Award-winning singer/actress during her years-ago prime because her present, frankly, was pretty terrific. Now living in Wisconsin, only a couple of months before this totally charming show, Hughes faced spinal surgery with a titanium plate inserted in her neck. It must have made her a bionic singer, as her performance (with Daryl Kojak on piano and Ritt Henn on bass) was inspirational, as well as musically sublime.
Joe Iconis & Family: Rock & Roll Jamboree and Bloodsong of Love
New York cabaret is very lucky that one of our best young contemporary pop and musical theater composers is also into producing nightclub shows throughout the year, especially with his gang of talented singer/actor friends in tow. Joe Iconis & Family's annual Rock & Roll Jamboree (this past year on St. Patty's Day at the Laurie Beechman) is one of the most musically raucous and satisfying shows of any year and for 2014 won the BroadwayWorld Award for "Best Revue." Then in October, Joe and company brought to 54 Below a cabaret-style staging of Iconis' 2010 musical spoof of spaghetti westerns, Bloodsong of Love, a cleverly campy comedy with an excellent score which is a rarity these days. On top of that, they bookended these shows with their annual 54 Below Christmas Spectacular in December 2013 and '14, with "spectacularly fun" being the operative phrase.
Barb Jungr: Hard Rain: The Songs of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen
It seems as if the British dynamo travels across the pond to New York for two to four weeks a year to let us know what we're missing the other 40-plus weeks. A bit less than a year after her terrific show, Dancing In the Dark, at 59E59 Theatre, Barb Jungr was back at the same venue with this intense interpretation of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs based on her CD release, which has won a 2014 BroadwayWorld Award (along with Karen Oberlin and Sean Harkness' disc). Jungr is simply a brilliant vocalist who infuses hints of jazz, blues, theatricality, and humor into every performance. Her 54 Below show at the beginning of the new year, Mad About the Boy and No Regrets, should already be considered a 2015 BWW Award nominee.
Maxine Linehan: Beautiful Songs
"Beautiful" was the operative word for this show in more ways than one. Linehan was one of New York cabaret's most prolific performers in 2014, staging the run of her compelling show An American Journey in a studio while recording the CD (released during 2014), performing in multiple variety shows (including a standout spot in the Cabaret Convention), and culminating the year with a run at the Metropolitan Room that showed off her personal beauty as well as her beautiful voice (not to mention her beautiful orchestra, see the list of "mosts," below). Linehan is clearly a young cabaret vocalist on the rise in this town. This lovely show is back at the Metropolitan Room on February 4, 6, and 20, all at 7 pm.
Maude Maggart: The Door Opened
It already feels like ages ago when the ethereal mezzo-soprano performed this dreamy show at the Café Carlyle last February. It's a shame the California-based singer hasn't been back since. As Maggart again revealed in this set that explored the various stages of romantic love, she is a delightful enchantress with a voice that is simultaneously subtle and seductive. With this show, Maggart proved again that she is one of the few cabaret singers who can sustain a ballad-heavy show from start to finish and not have the audience clamor for an up-tempo tune or a belted 11 o'clock showstopper.
Amanda McBroom & George Ball: Some Enchanted Evening
If ever the title of a show matched the ambiance in the club throughout a performance, this was the one. This long-married couple that has become musical theater royalty staged an absolutely charming and heart warming night at 54 Below in mid-October and exhibited why they are both masters of their craft. McBroom was really on her game, especially during her always-stirring renditions of Jacques Brel classics. Ball was marvelous on everything from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Bruce Springsteen. Together, the 2014 BWW World nominees for "Best Duo Show" captivated the audience with duets by R & H, Sondheim, Brel, and Gershwin. Their love is here to stay and so is ours . . . for them.
Mark Nadler: Running Wild--Songs and Scandals of the Roaring '20s
Say what you will about his sometimes over-the-top-ness, but you can't say that Mark Nadler (winner of the 2014 BWW Cabaret Award for "Best Show, Male") isn't one of New York cabaret's best performers / entertainers / showmen. This pungent piano player's deliciously decadent tribute to the debauched denizens of the hedonistic 1920s Jazz Age mixed fascinating, funny, and ribald tales with wonderful period songs about everything from promiscuous actresses to colorful Greenwich Village drag queens. When he recently performed the show in front of a packed house at the York Theater, his spontaneous interaction with iconic cabaret star Julie Wilson, who was commenting and chortling in the front row, was a total hoot.
Karen Oberlin & Sean Harkness: A Wish
One of the two 2014 BroadwayWorld New York Cabaret Award winners for "Best CD Release" (along with Barb Jungr), as well as an Award nominee for "Best Duo Show," Karen Oberlin & Sean Harkness formed an immensely listenable duo whether in your car on the CD player or live in a cabaret club like Kitano or the Metropolitan Room. Harkness' subtle and supportive guitar licks were an ideal match for Oberlin's supple and sensual vocals on a delicious collection of wistful love songs.
Steve Schalchlin: New World Waking
A cabaret show isn't exactly where you would expect to hear pungent political messages through music, but during a time in the history of America in general and New York City in particular, Steve Schalchlin's spiritual yet political song cycle New World Waking (offered in mid-December at the Urban Stages Winter Rhythms Festival) was a welcome wake-up call announcing that there are a myriad of vital global problems with which the human race must deal. With Schalchlin at the piano playing for a talented cast of singers, the composer dealt with issues ranging from racism to militarism, from homophobia to xenophobia, with tuneful pop, country, and gospel melodies and intelligent lyrics that were never overbearing or preachy. With any luck (and perhaps financing), this important piece will get an off-Broadway run.
Vivian Reed: An Evening With . . .
She had me at "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered." Vivian Reed opened her last day of March show at 54 Below with the Stevie Wonder classic and it was full energy ahead from there, as the Tony Award nominee and Drama Desk winner (for the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar) produced a powerful and passionate performance on songs ranging from Great American Songbook standards to R & B and jazz. Reed was sensual in both voice and movement (especially on the Peggy Lee classic "Fever") during a pulsating show that featured a five-piece orchestra and some wonderful guest singers, including Luba Mason and Andrea Jones Sojola.
Julie Reyburn: Fate Is Kind
One isn't often going to catch one of the best cabaret performances of any year in a church social hall in Brooklyn, in fact, maybe never. But that's what happened when I saw Julie Reyburn perform Fate Is Kind at Christ Church in Bay Ridge in early March. The show was Reyburn's 2000 cabaret debut which earned her MAC and Bistro Awards that year and over 75 minutes that night at the Church I found out why. With her original Musical Director Mark Janas (who was the Church's MD) at the piano, Reyburn, now almost 15 years older and wiser, offered a performance that was sensitive, sensual, spiritual, and life affirming, all the while weaving superb storytelling through great songs and her lovely mezzo-soprano. It was a show for the ages . . . and all ages.
Steve Ross & Karen Oberlin: Astaire & Rogers: Cheek to Cheek
With a 2014 BroadwayWorld Award for "Best CD Release," a BWW Award Nomination for "Best Female Vocalist," and two BWW Award nominations for "Best Duo Show," you'd have to say that Karen Oberlin had a pretty good year in cabaret. Of course, when you stage a duo show it helps to pick partners like Sean Harkness (for A Wish) and Steve Ross, who joined forces with Oberlin for this lovely retro show at 54 Below that paid loving homage to the film/dance team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. The twosome may not have faced the music and danced, but there was plenty of wonderful piano playing from Ross and lovely singing from both veteran performers. It's hard to think of a more ideal cabaret pair who could render this particular songbook with more panache.
Tune In Time: The Musical Theatre Olympics
Ya think Kander and Ebb might have started like this? Probably not, but we may find the next great Broadway songwriting duo through this new cabaret-like game show being called the "Musical Theatre Olympics." The brainchild of producers Amy Engelhardt (an accomplished songwriter in her own right) and Heather Shields, Tune in Time at the York Theatre is like doing the high jump without pads to cushion the landing. The concept brings together disembodied composers and lyricists, makes them select subjects and musical genres at random, and then gives them a whole 20 minutes to come up with a song for a new musical based on such randomness that a small team of judges might love. That would be enough of a hoot in itself, but the wacky entertainment ante is raised even more thanks to the intelligently ditsy hosting of statuesque blonde Emily McNamara and the wonderfully comic piano riffing of musical director Nate Buccieri. Next shows are February 2, March 9, and April 6, all at 7:30 pm. (Keep an eye out next week for my BWW feature on this wacky but inspired idea.)
Jon Weber: From Joplin to Jarrett--100 Years of Piano Jazz
This versatile and prolific pianist has been on the cabaret scene for many years, but right now may be at the prime of his powers. As a Musical Director, during 2014 he played for Lauren Fox, Marissa Mulder, Stacy Sullivan, Shana Farr, and Jeff Harnar and K.T. Sullivan, as well as musically quarterbacking numerous variety shows. Weber can play anything in any style, but really struts his stuff doing jazz and proved it beyond measure during his dazzling one-man cabaret musical documentary tracking the evolution of jazz piano over the past century. Now he's playing this show everywhere from California colleges to Crazy Coqs in London.
One Night of Peace & Music: A Tribute to Woodstock
For the second straight year, singer and 1960s/70s musicophile Lauren Fox produced this variety show at 54 Below honoring the greatest rock 'n' roll concert of all time filled with ultra-talented singers and musicians (including Musical Director Jon Weber). And for the second time the show was "far out." Highlights included many of the returning champions: Heather Mac Rae channeling Grace Slick on "White Rabbit," Marissa Mulder positively luminous on Sweetwater's "Two Worlds," Natalie Douglas soulfully soaring on Sly Stone's "Everyday People," Carol J. Bufford summoning the ghost of Janis Joplin on George Gershwin's "Summertime," guitarist Ted Stafford with fine John Fogerty fingering on "Proud Mary," boss bass player Ritt Henn doing a wild imitation of Joe Cocker on "With A Little Help From My Friends," groovy guitarist Peter Calo transforming into Jimi Hendrix on "The Star-Spangled Banner," and Fox herself going all flower child on Melanie's "Close To It All."
The 30 "Bests and Mosts" in New York Cabaret, 2014
Best Backup Singer Who Deserved To Do Her Own Show: In Carly Ozard's delightful late May tribute to Bette Midler at The Duplex, Midler on the Roof, Rain Collazo dazzled in her role as sensational support vocalist who deserved her own showcase. Then a few months after her backup vocal turn in Ozard's show, Collazo staged a pulsating tribute to Prince featuring vocals that were worthy of an American Idol finalist.
Best Comic Performance In a Theatrical Cabaret Show: Young singer/actors Jeremy Morse and Lance Rubin were both adorably hilarious in Joe Iconis' musical parody of spaghetti westerns, Bloodsong of Love, at 54 Below.
Best Crossdressing Turn by a Performer Who's Not a Drag Queen: In her performance arty 54 Below show, A Girl Named Bill, eccentric singer Nellie McKay's gender-bending tribute to bandleader/pianist Billy Tipton was transformational.
Best Debut Show: While I only caught a couple of debut performances this past year, I'd find it tough to believe that any could have been more solid or charming than Joshua Dixon's Fly Up! at The Duplex, a show that earned him a BWW Award for "Best Debut" (along with Chrysten Peddie).
Best Musical Comedy Performance In a Solo Show by a Non-Celebrity: Another category that allows me to cheat on my "Best 20." Both Darron Cardosa in The Bitchy Waiter Show at Don't Tell Mama and Nikki MacCallum in Familiar Things at The Duplex staged shows that were witty, clever, and charmingly self-deprecating--and they showed off some fine vocals to boot.
Best Musical Director in a One-Man Band Not Playing Piano: In the surreal Stage 72 show, Ghosts of Love: Songs From the Reel World of David Lynch, in which he teamed up with the always enchanting and ethereal Lauren Fox, bassist Ritt Henn not only played the prototypically crazed Lynchian leading man, he also expertly played a plethora of string instruments which produced haunting arrangements of Lynch movie music that helped make Ghosts of Love a riveting show.
Best One-Off Variety Show Not A 54 Below Sings Someone's Songbook: The late June variety show at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall, It Might As Well Be Spring! A Celebration in Song of the Life of Margaret Whiting, featured almost 30 cabaret stars spanning a few generations, from 30-year-old rising star Marissa Mulder to 86-year-old living legend Marilyn Maye. Produced by Whiting's daughter Debbi and Mabel Mercer Foundation Artistic Director K.T. Sullivan, the almost three-hour concert was still briskly-paced, emotional, and featured some stellar performances, most notably from Natalie Douglas (who received the first Whiting Award) on "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," Tanya Moberly on "Lies of Handsome Men," and Heather Mac Rae on "My Favorite Year."
Best Original Songs for a Cabaret Show: While I didn't get to see Lorinda Lisitza and Ted Stafford's show, This May Hurt A Bit, until this past weekend, the terrific twosome performed it throughout 2014 and won the BWW Award for "Best Duo Show." So I'm retroactively picking them here because their original songs "Reassure Me (Monster)," the show's title song, and Stafford's "Cold-Blooded" were sophisticated, compelling, and eminently listenable pop/rock.
Best Performances by Blues Singers Who Also Happen To Be Good Friends: Relatively unknown on the New York cabaret scene, accomplished veteran singers Sari Schorr (at The Cutting Room and Metropolitan Room) and Billie Williams (at The Cutting Room and Joe's Pub) kicked major blues butt during each of their 2014 club performances. Yeah, they're friends, but you don't have to take my word for it. These two powerful (not to mention, great looking) vocalists are both going to be inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame in March and Williams has a date at The Bitter End on February 7 at 9 pm.
Best Performance by a Singing Piano Player in a Continuous Club Gig: Always musically erudite Eric Comstock was the first headliner to hold court at the new Café Noctambulo (in back of Pangea Restaurant in the East Village) and regularly charmed the intimate audiences with his vocals, polished keyboard playing, and encyclopedic knowledge of the Great American Songbook.
Best Rendition of a Rodgers & Hammerstein Classic, Vocal: Given the plethora of performers who sing iconic R & H tunes in a given year, one's vocal has to be really special to earn this nod. But Stearns Matthews' supremely lovely rendition of "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" (performed in 2014 at The Concerts at City Greens and the Urban Stages Winter Rhythms Festival) turned any night in which he sang it into some enchanted evening.
Best Rendition of a Rodgers and Hammerstein Classic, Instrumental: Sean Harkness' jazzy, mesmerizing, and virtuoso guitar playing on "My Favorite Things" during the show he hosted, Broadway By Guitar, at the 2014 Urban Stages Winter Rhythms Festival.
Best Rendition of a Relatively Recent Pop Hit: Maxine Linehan (in her Metropolitan Room show Beautiful Songs) and Marissa Mulder (in her Metropolitan Room show Living Standards, see video) delivered their own distinctive versions of Matt Alber's haunting 2008 hit "End of the World" and both were transcendent.
Best Return/Reclycling of a Tribute Show: Karen Oberlin has been performing her Secret Love: A Tribute to Doris Day homage to the legendary singer for almost 15 years now and with good reason--there are few singers who in sound, look, and style are thisclose to an ideal fit with the subject of their tribute. With Musical Director Tedd Firth leading a great band at Birdland in early May, Oberlin aced every rendition of many songs that the glorious Day transformed into classics.
Best Show Run by a Jazz Singer: Move over 2014 BWW Award winners (for "Best Female Jazz Singer") Monheit, Conklin, et al. In a cabaret field filled with terrific jazz birds, this was the year of Gabriella Stravelli, whose summer 2014 shows at the Metropolitan Room drew across-the-board raves for her subtly powerful vocals and marvelous arrangements.
Best Tribute Show About a Jazz Icon: Following up her acclaimed homage to Peggy Lee in 2012 (and which she's performed regularly since), Stacy Sullivan triumphed again in 2014 with On The Air--Tribute to Marian McPartland, a show honoring the late jazz pianist/composer and National Public Radio show host, which played at the York Theatre and Don't Tell Mama (and most recently at the Metropolitan Room). Sullivan's Musical Director and current NYC Piano Jazz show host Jon Weber supplied sublime arrangements and the bass playing of both Tom Hubbard and Steve Doyle (in alternate shows) was masterful.
Best Use of Liquor Bottles as a Cabaret Show Prop: During his Spring 54 Below show about the Roaring '20s, Runnin' Wild, Mark Nadler opened a violin case that looked like storage for an Al Capone machine gun only to reveal a bottle of gin, a martini shaker, and all the fixings. About two months later, in what is becoming her annual tour-de-force, one-nighter at 54 Below, Broadway veteran Terri White expertly played percussion on both "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid and the Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" by banging on liquor bottles with varying volumes of liquid in her BWW Award nominated show Two Score.
Best Variety Show Gimmick Metropolitan Room Managing Partner Bernie Furshpan Came Up With Before the Guinness Record Book Marathon (which doesn't count for 2014): Bernie Furshpan is quickly becoming the cabaret room booker version of the schlepper Miss Mazeppa, who bumped it with a trumpet. He never met a variety show shtick he didn't like. One of his better ideas became the This Is Your Night tributes that in 2014 honored some very deserving long-time cabaret champions such as Bobbie Horowitz, Maryann Lopinto, Peter Leavy, Joseph Macchia, Luigi, David Kenney, Kitty Skrobela, and Alyce Finell.
Best Wearing of Pajamas as a Costume: This one's a tie (or rather, a nightie) between Sidney Myer's black satin get up for his song "Bad Bad Man" at the October Cabaret Convention, and the cute Christmas footsies Carole J. Bufford wore for "I Saw [Slutty] Mommy Kissing Santa Clause" during her holiday show at the Laurie Beechman with Eric Yves Garcia.
Most Accomplished Group of Musicians Who Play the Same Instrument Other than Piano: While cabaret boasts many outstanding guitarists and percussionists (not to mention violinists and horn players), the deepest instrumental talent pool is all about that bass. A singer or musical director could put these names into a hat, pull any of them out, and not go wrong. Among the best are (and I hope I don't miss anybody): Ritt Henn, Tom Hubbard, Jon Burr, Skip Ward, Steve Doyle, Jay Leonhart, Ivan Bodley, Matt Scharfglass, Saadi Zain, Boots Maleson, and Daniel Fabricant.
Most Consistently Superb Arrangements by a Musical Director: On multiple levels, pulsating pianist Steven Ray Watkins' support for his vocalists in 2014 (i.e. Rain Collazo, Carly Ozard, Tanya Moberly, Peggy Eason, Kim Grogg, Georgia Osborn, Jim Speake, Joshua Dixon, and others) was, shall we say, off the charts.
Most Deceptively Comic Performance During a Wonderful Vocal: Celia Berk's rendition of Irving Berlin's "Yiddisha Nightengale" at the Cabaret Convention and in her solo show at the Metropolitan Room not only revealed a surprising vocal range but also a Fanny Brice-like comedic flair. So nu? What's not to love?
Most Deserving of Awards Named For Late Cabaret Icons: At the July Variety Show Tribute to Margaret Whiting at Carnegie Hall's Weill Center, Natalie Douglas received the first-ever "Margaret Whiting Award" from the Mabel Mercer Foundation. Then at the Cabaret Convention in October, Ann Hampton Callaway was honored with the "Mabel Mercer Award." There couldn't have been better choices for such awards than these two wonderful vocalists.
Most Impressive Variety Show Vocalist: The lusciously-voiced Lucia Spina was spellbinding in 54 Below Sings 1776, 54 Below Sings Dolly Parton, the song cycle New World Waking at Urban Stages, and no doubt countless others I didn't get to see during 2014.
Most Indefatigable Octogenarian: At this point it may be a cliché, even redundant to call Marilyn Maye a "force of nature," but what else can you say about an 86-year-old performer who always seems to be on a stage somewhere in New York (if not somewhere else in the country). From her 2013 New Year's Eve show at the Metropolitan Room to the same gig this past December 31 (and, of course, multiple shows during the first week of that January Guinness Record Book Marathon), Maye never stopped. She performed her By Request show at the Met Room in early January, two separate runs of her Johnny Carson Tribute show at 54 Below, performed at Birdland in September, did a duo show with Bucky Pizzarelli at Iridium in November, hit the stage at Joe's Pub in December, and . . . need I go on? Did I leave anything out? Probably. Long may this ageless woman sing!
Most Inspired Singing Duo Combo: Even if you're not a total devotee of the music of Frank Wildhorn, you couldn't help but appreciate hearing his songs through the wonderful vocal instruments of Jane Monheit and Clint Holmes, who joined forces (with Wildhorn at the piano) in the threesome's January Cafe Carlyle presentation of Wildhorn's songbook. Monheit was her usual terrific self, but Holmes stole the show, knocking out of the park everything from up-tempos to ballads.
Most Intoxicating Little Orchestra in a Cabaret Show: Maxine Linehan's beautiful show Beautiful Songs was rendered even more sublime and sophisticated by the inspired choice of orchestral instruments, which included the glorious sounds of strings and reeds. Joseph Brent on violin, mandolin, and guitar, Justin Vance alternating between flute, oboe, and clarinet, and 2014 BWW Nominee Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf on cello, produced an exhilarating sound led by Musical Director Ryan Shirar and his compelling arrangements.
Most Obvious Breakout Performers Who Didn't Make My Favorite 20 Shows List: Rising cabaret star Adam Shapiro followed up his appearance in the HBO film Normal Heart with an immensely entertaining show Nothing Normal at 54 Below (being reprised on February 15 at 9:30 at the Metropolitan Room), while Celia Berk was one of the surprise stories of 2014 with both her CD release and solo show at the Metropolitan Room (which is back again for a four-show run starting February 8 at 4 pm).
Most Promising Young Musical Directors: As is the case with bass players (see the first "Most" item, above), the New York cabaret scene is littered with excellent Musical Director/Pianists. It may be time to add two more relatively unknown keyboardists to the list. Matt Baker's playing was an ear-opening crowd pleaser during his brief turns at the October Cabaret Convention and in the late December Carole J. Bufford/Eric Yves Garcia Holiday Show, while Ryan Shirar's arrangements and piano playing were superb in Maxine Linehan's show, Beautiful Songs.
Most Uplifting Show About a Downer Topic: Based on the title of his show, Dancing With Death, and the macabre nature of his promotional material (grim reaper images, etc), one would have thought Thomas Honeck's act at The Duplex would be a real "Debbie Downer." On the contrary, Honeck's extremely personal and heartfelt show--and his engaging performance--was decidedly inspiring and featured solid direction from Honeck's Duplex colleague Lisa Moss. Try to dance with this show when it's back at the venue on March 7 at 4 pm.