CABARET LIFE NYC: Mid-Year Cabaret Review--Best (And Favorite) 20 Shows and Performances of 2013 (So Far)

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Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by
Stephen Hanks

The Major League Baseball All-Star break (the game is on Tuesday night) has always been considered the midpoint of the season and as a lifelong fan I've always enjoyed reading those analyses from writers that assess the best performances of the first half. Since July is also the middle of the calendar year, I thought it might be fun to present a cabaret equivalent of a baseball midseason report. So . . . (drum roll) . . . presenting the Best (and My Favorite) 20 New York Cabaret Shows and Performances of 2013 (So Far).

Once you scan my list, I'm sure you'll wonder why some shows you might have thought were terrific didn't make the cut. Simple explanation: If I didn't get a chance to see a show, it couldn't make the list. But I still attended about 60 cabaret performances between January-July and reviewed most of them, so it's not like coming up with the "Best 20" was easy. The shows and performers cited here weren't just those that might have been the most technically on-point and eminently entertaining, they also had to be likeable--by moi--and exude what I call (and this may not be original, for all I know), The Five Cs of Great Cabaret: Singing ('natch), Set List, Script, Stage Presence, and Showmanship. (By the way, given the predominant percentage of women in cabaret, not to mention how many ladies are on my list, we may have to change that word to Show-womanship.)

Among the shows and performances selected were those I saw for the first time during 2013. So even if the show was first staged a year or two prior, it qualified. If a show's run carried over into 2013 or was re-mounted this year, but I saw it during 2012, it didn't make the list (which is why you don't see Adam Shapiro's superb Mac Award-winning Guide to the Perfect Breakup or Lorinda Lisitza and Ted Stafford's delightful Ted & Lo Show.) One of the best shows of the year so far, if not the best, is Jim Brochu's Character Man, but Brochu's star turn is a wonderful Off-Broadway theater piece which was disguised as a cabaret show when I saw it in June at the Metropolitan Room. Since it's likely to move into that small-theater-mode soon, it's not one of the select 20. Two performances of note that I loved, but saw more as one-shot nightclub concerts than cabaret shows, were Blues-centric sets at The Iridium from the raucous and rambunctious Lauren Robert (May 21) and the boisterous and beguiling Billie Williams (May 14). And I can't write one of these columns without a mention of the amazing Joe Iconis and The Family concerts that blew me away again this year and that now seem to be a regular fixture at 54 Below.

It's near impossible to numerically rank the "Best" shows from 1 to 20. I mean how does one decide which is the 7th- or 12th- or 19th-best show from among the cream of the crop? So my list is in alphabetical order by last name, but with one caveat: The five at the top of the list--also alphabetical--are those shows I consider the "Best of the Best." Let the debates, emails, and opinionated Facebook posts begin!

THE BEST (AND MY FAVORITE) 20 CABARET SHOWS &
PERFORMANCES OF 2013 (SO FAR)

BEST OF THE BEST

William Blake--Echoes of Etta: This young, budding star caused such a stir with his stirring Etta James tribute concert in 2012 at Birdland, he was snapped up by both Joe's Pub and the Cafe Carlyle in February and April, respectively, and rocked both rooms with his boisterous interpretation of the Blues. With his powerful voice that features fantastic falsetto tones, solid arrangements from his Musical Director Michael Thomas Murray, and a positively kick-butt band, Blake fronted one of the best tribute shows of this or any year. And when Ann Hampton Callaway, Jane Monheit, and Natalie Douglas all bring you on stage for duets during their shows at Birdland, you must be doing something right.

Carole J. Bufford--Body & Soul: It seems like ages ago when one of New York cabaret's rising young stars launched this show, but it hit the Metropolitan Room in late January and six months later it's still a leading candidate for "Show of the Year." Less than a year after her sassy, pitch-perfect breakout show speak easy., her highly-praised tribute to the Jazz Age, Bufford should also be up for a room full of 2013 awards. With Body & Soul, this sensational vocalist made a seamless transition from a carefree 1920s flapper to a more mature and worldly-wise 1930s-'40s torch song-singing chanteuse, a throwback to an era when female vocalists fronted big bands in smoky nightclubs. Body & Soul featured a set full of showstoppers, including Bufford's cosmic belts on "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" and "Cry Me a River." (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)

Ann Hampton Callaway--From Sassy to Divine: A Celebration of Sarah Vaughan: When I reviewed this show in mid-May, the headline announced that I was "running out of superlatives" when critiquing Callaway cabaret shows. So thank goodness this capsule only needs to be a few sentences. New York's reigning nightclub "Diva" (if not all of America's) actually staged two shows this year that could have made this "Best 20," if you want to count her January Birdland show, Bridges. As entertaining as that set was, by comparison it seemed like a mere warmup for Callaway's Vaughan tribute at Dizzy's Jazz Club at Lincoln Center, a show featuring an AHC at the top of her game. Her flexible vocal instrument conveyed all of Vaughan's rich sounds, from soulful lower register notes to a smoky, sinewy alto to jazzy mezzo soprano swings. Callaway's run at Dizzy's was recorded for an upcoming CD release, when the superlatives will probably be flowing like wine once again.

Lauren Fox--Love, Lust, Fear and Freedom/The Songs of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen: I don't know how it happened, but I missed seeing this show when the 2012 winner of both the MAC and Bistro Awards for "Female Debut" first staged it in the fall of 2011, and then again in early 2012 (and subsequently got rave reviews in the process). Like a brooding Leonard Cohen, I bemoaned my bad luck and secretly prayed Fox would mount it again, even though she had moved on to other successful shows and projects. All I could I yell was "Hallelujah!" when she booked the Joni and Leonard show in, of all places, Vineland, New Jersey this past March. It was worth the two-hour car ride to catch a positively transcendent show and singer who captured the essence, intensity, and talent of those two iconic pop singer/songwriters. Love and Lust are the operative words here.

Marissa Mulder--Tom . . . In His Words: After winning First Prize in the 2011 MetroStar Talent Challenge, Mulder staged a delightful and highly-praised show called Illusions, a light, frothy, romantic set of songs that fit right into her vocal and personality wheelhouse. So imagine the surprise among the entire New York cabaret community when this singer filled with sweetness and light announced she would be taking on the dark and dramatic tunes of Tom Waits. It was a bold, gutsy, and risky choice, but thanks to the guiding and perceptive hand of first-time director (and fellow cabaret singer) Lauren Fox, and the expert arrangements of Musical Director Jon Weber (not to mention the great band, including bassist Ritt Henn and guitarist Mike Rosengarten), Mulder dug deep into the intense, sensitive side of her soul and produced a definite 2013 "Show of the Year" candidate.

BEST OF THE REST

Christine Andreas--Bemused: While the title and theme of her show came across as a bit convoluted--songs of famous composers, songwriters and singers that were "muses" for each other--the performance of this beautiful Broadway veteran at 54 Below in late January on classic songs connected to collaborators like Arlen and Garland, Jobim and Sinatra, Legrand and Streisand, was completely captivating. While most current or former Broadway stars who are staging shows at the venue are performing what amounts to mini-concerts, Andreas knows her way around cabaret and developed a charmingly creative conceit that could generate multiple sequels. This is one reviewer who is really looking forward to Bemused II.

Laura Benanti--In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention: The statement in her show title strained credulity, but this stunning Broadway and TV star certainly deserves attention when she's on a cabaret or nightclub stage. The New York Post theater critic Michael Riedel recently floated her name as an ideal "Eliza Doolittle" for a possible revival of My Fair Lady and anyone who saw her mid-May run at 54 Below would understand why. I could have certainly danced all night once I heard her delicious renditions of "On The Street Where You Live," and "Unusual Way." Beautiful, funny, and talented, and possessing a lovely, deceptively powerful voice, Benanti is the total package.

Natalie Douglas--Scrapbook 2.0: In June, one of Birdland's most frequent songbirds perched at the venue for the 25th time in almost nine years and produced another sensational show, this one with a more personal and nostalgic flavor. With her soulful, evocative, powerful voice--as well as her engaging personality and connection with her audience--Douglas proved once again that she can't be pigeonholed as she excels in any song genre. From Nina Simone to Linda Ronstadt, from the Eagles to Elton John (her soaring version of "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" was the highlight of the show for me), the dynamic Douglas can cover them all. Her musical scrapbook is one you'll always want to flip through.

Laurie Krauz--Tapestry Rewoven: In 2008, Krauz (center in photo) and her accomplished Musical Director/Arranger Daryl Kojak (front, right in photo) first stitched together and performed this jazzy, bluesy re-imaging of Carol King's iconic album, Tapestry, and am I glad they decided to bring it back this past February (it's not too late, baby, for you to see it, as they are performing it again at the Metropolitan Room on July 17 at 7pm). This gutsy and clever idea for a tribute show is a triumph from first song to last and shows off the full range of Krauz's jazz and vocal chops. There's a CD in the works and when it's released that's one disc that will get regular play in my car.

Jillian Laurain--My Broadway/100 Years of the Great White Way: Almost two years after staging one of the better tributes to the Barbra Streisand songbook, the former opera singer was finally back again this March with an ambitious homage to Broadway classics. With expert guidance from Award-winning Musical Director/Pianist Barry Levitt, Laurain navigated through some of the toughest songs written by masters like Weill, Gershwin, Sondheim, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and produced a consistently strong and entertaining set. The lovely Laurain will be back at the Metropolitan Room with this beguiling Broadway history on November 23 at 7pm.

Rosemary Loar--When Harry Met The Duke: This lithe and lovely veteran cabaret performer with a proclivity for jazzy interpretations of pop and Broadway classics isn't everyone's cup of tea, but this is one reviewer who believes Loar goes down like a soothing cup of throat coat. Just when you thought you couldn't see and hear another tribute to masters like Harold Arlen or Duke Ellington, Loar took a theme that sounded like a stretch and made it work with her charm and her chops. I saw it twice; the second time after she made some script and set changes and both versions were lovely. Loar is so passionately and energetically invested in this show, fellow cabaret performers who see it will probably sing, "I'll have what she's having." Her promotional show card alone (see photo) merits a MAC award. Loar will again be performing this cleverly conceived tribute show at the Metropolitan Room on July 18 at 7pm and July 24 at 7pm.

Marilyn Maye--Maye-den Voyage: I'll always remember bringing in 2013 watching the A-Maye-Zing and indefatigable octogenarian at the Metropolitan Room--and in what was her second massively entertaining show of the night. If that wasn't enough for this 85-year-old wonder of the cabaret world, a little more than two months later she was packing them in at 54 Below during a week-long run of Maye-den Voyage. You just haven't lived until you've seen this musical force of nature cavorting around a cabaret stage, singing her heart out with the energy of a 35-year-old. Long Maye she sing!

Jane Monheit at Birdland: Her May show didn't have a title, but it didn't need one. The name and the voice are enough. It may seem like this smooth and sultry jazz whisperer has been around forever, but she's only 35 and is caressing lyrics better than ever. At Birdland, she mixed songs from her most recent CD, Heart of the Matter, with some of her old standbys and she had the Birdland audience mesmerized. Just Monheit's enchanting mashup of the Beatles' "Golden Slumbers" with "The Long and Winding Road," and her interpretation of "Sing" from Sesame Street as a cool Bossa nova, were worth the price of admission.

Champagne Pam--Daddy's Little Girl: She may still be her daddy's little girl, but in May at the Laurie Beechman, Pamela Lewis proved that on a cabaret stage she's all grown up and hitting her prime as a performer. Her bubbly show was everything entertaining cabaret should be--warm, funny, intimate, engaging, well-structured, and occasionally surprising--and performed by a confident entertainer and silky, sultry pop singer who is totally comfortable in front of an audience and in her own skin. This is one cool chick who is extroverted and accessible, and who can stand out among the women and also be one of the guys. When the awards conversations start later this year, Lewis should be sipping from the nominations flute because she's a sparkling glass of champagne that cabaret audiences should be enjoying for years to come.

Barbara Porteus--Up On The Roof: This youthful and lovely veteran of the musical theater and cabaret scene has always had the vocal chops and the technical ability to stage a polished and professional cabaret show. But in this particular effort, featuring a range of classic and contemporary pop songs, she added warmth and depth to her performance. The show's "unplugged" style, featuring just three guitar players (including arranger Jack Cavari) and sans piano, was an inspired choice and made you feel you were actually up on a roof sipping some wine with friends and mellowing out to a marvelous mixed-tape. Porteus is back with this charming show at Don't Tell Mama on July 22 at 7pm.

Faith Prince--Have a Little Faith: This veteran Broadway Baby could be on the verge of becoming a queen of cabaret in the Barbara Cook/Marilyn Maye mode. Her highly entertaining early June run at 54 Below was one of the most complete cabaret shows performed by a current or former Broadway star at the venue. Prince is an engaging story teller, with warmth and a self-deprecating humor, and her vocals--which can handle almost any style of song--are as strong as ever. In other words, a person could develop a crush.

T. Oliver Reid--Drop Me Off In Harlem: On the strength of his performances of this show in 2012, Reid earned a 2013 MAC award for "Best Male Vocalist" and a 2013 Bistro Award for "Tribute Show." When I finally got to see "Harlem" this February at 54 Below, this smooth singer was gamely going on with the show despite struggling with a flu. While he clearly wasn't at his best that night, Reid was still solid in what was a cleverly conceived and charming show. In an art form that these days is woefully short on male stars, Reid is clearly one of the best at the cabaret craft.

Billie Roe--1978 NYC Underground: It was obviously the year of Tom Waits in New York cabaret, as less than two months after Marissa Mulder's wonderful Waits show, Roe staged her own more gritty, New York-centric coloring of the Waits songbook. With the guidance of director Lennie Watts and the support of Musical Director Tracy Stark, the winner of the 2012 MetroStar Talent Challenge produced a personal and engrossing show, displaying powerful vocals and insightful interpretations of some intense and evocative Waits compositions.

Corinna Sowers-Adler--By Request: Because she lives and works in New Jersey and is fairly recent to the New York scene, Sowers-Adler might be one of the more unknown and underrated cabaret performers. But she's not unknown or underrated to the audiences who have seen her clever, entertaining, and intimate By Request shows, the 8th of which was staged in April at Stage 72 and may have been her best one yet. Versatile and vivacious, warm and welcoming--and possessing a great vocal range--Sowers-Adler is one of a group of young, exciting, and multi-talented female singers lighting up East Coast cabaret.

K.T. Sullivan & Karen Kohler--Vienna to Weimar: This deliciously decadent tribute to the Golden Age of Cabaret in Austria and Germany during the 1920s and '30s is another show I'm thankful had a longer run after it first launched last year. During one of the best duo cabaret shows you'll ever see, these lovely and experienced nightclub chanteuses brought their Stage 72 audiences back in time with engrossing interpretations of songs by legendary composers of the era such as Frederick Hollaender and Kurt Weill. Sullivan's classy lasciviousness paired with Kohler's erotic androgyny was a compelling combination that kept this reviewer riveted from the opening number. Marlena who?



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From This Author Stephen Hanks