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CABARET LIFE NYC: Mid-Year Cabaret Review--Best (and Favorite) 20 Shows and Performances (So Far) for 2014

Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks

Every so often a cabaret performer or cabaret show goer will approach me and offer, "You seem to see and review everything." I guess I can't complain such a perception exists but, of course, it's not true. If I actually did see everything, I'd be writing so many reviews I wouldn't get enough sleep to do things like, oh, say, work an actual full-time job (magazine and web advertising sales, for those who want to know). When you factor in real-life scheduling conflicts (you actually don't think cabaret is real life, do you?) and having to choose between shows staged the same night, even checking out all the shows one wants to see is impossible. I probably shouldn't do this to myself, but I end up regretting that I missed certain performances, especially those that receive pretty good buzz.

But I've still managed to attend more than 50 shows since last November (a few more than once)--the large majority of which were reviewed on these web pages--so I felt I had more than enough cabaret show inventory to present my second annual "Mid-Year Cabaret Review" citing the "20 Best (and My Favorite) Cabaret Shows and Performances" for the first half of 2014. Since the eligibility period for 2014 BroadwayWorld New York Cabaret Award consideration begins with shows staged since last November (late October if it was the first of a run), I've included a few of those late 2013 shows in this group. And with the announcement of the BWW Award nominees just four months away, I've offered some projections on the Award categories for which these shows very well might receive consideration. (You can find the list of this year's Award categories here.)

Before getting to the Best 20, I wanted to acknowledge some fine shows and performances that didn't quite make the cut, but that could also be BWW Award-nomination worthy come the fall. Honorable mentions in the celebrity category are solo shows by Tommy Tune and Lucie Arnaz (at Café Carlyle), and Jane Lynch (at 54 Below) that were delightfully entertaining. In the non-celeb vocalist categories, honorable mentions and potential Award nominees include Marieanne Meringolo, Bernard Dotson (Metropolitan Room), Carly Ozard, Nikki MacCallum (The Duplex), and Peggy Eason (Don't Tell Mama). New York's various cabaret venues no doubt featured another dozen or more terrific shows and performances (many of which I hope to catch later this year if they add dates) that will end up as 2014 BWW Award nominees. But for now, here's one cabaret reviewer's assessment of the Best Shows (so far) of 2014 (listed alphabetically).

Carole J. Bufford: Shades of Blue, Metropolitan Room--A knockout, tour de force of a show that Bufford had been building toward for three years (see video, below). There wasn't a reviewer who didn't rave and the show was given a monthly residency at the Met Room, which ended in June. She combines a delightful on-stage personality with a classic 11 o'clock number belt, so it won't be a surprise to find her in a Broadway musical before long. Projected BWW Award nomination categories: Best Female Vocalist; Best Show, Female; Show of the Year; Best Musical Director (Ian Herman).

Ann Hampton Callaway: Songs I'd Wish I'd Written, 54 Below--Arguably now America's best, if not most popular, cabaret singer, she made last Thanksgiving weekend even more festive with a five-day, seven-show run featuring a mix of great songs, all of which she knocked out of the park--per usual. Callaway hasn't been quite as ubiquitous in New York so far this year because she's been in demand around the country and the world. Thankfully, we get her back for the Cabaret Convention at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall in October. Projected BWW Award nomination categories: Best Female Celebrity Vocalist; Best Show, Celebrity Female.

Lauren Fox & Ritt Henn: Ghosts of Love-Songs From the Reel World of David Lynch, Stage 72--Whether you love or hate the surrealistic films of the quirky David Lynch (and their soundtracks), Fox and Henn deserve major props for producing this iconoclastic, out-of-the-cabaret-box show--and pretty much pulling it off. Fox's acting/singing was mesmerizing and Henn's musicality was outstanding and the duo reached a twin peak with this otherworldly effort. Projected BWW Award nomination categories: Best Duo or Group Show; Best Non-Piano Instrumentalist (Henn)

Joe Iconis and The Family: Christmas Spectacular, 54 Below--The uber-talented songwriter and his merry band of equally talented singer/actor friends once again rocked 54 Below (see video, below) with four shows in two days in late December (and followed up with a super fun St. Patrick's night show at the Laurie Beechman in March). It's just a matter of time before Iconis is scoring a hit Broadway show. The hope is that he doesn't get too busy to keep mounting these incredibly entertaining shows in the cabaret rooms. Projected BWW Award nomination category: Best Revue

Barb Jungr: Dancing in the Dark, 59E59 Theatre--The internationally acclaimed cabaret chanteuse from Britain was back in the Big Apple again last December with another superb show, this time featuring the songs of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, and more. Jungr's intricate arrangements combined with her on-stage passion and humor makes her one of cabaret's most compelling performers on either side of the pond. Projected BWW Award nomination categories: Best Female Celebrity Vocalist; Best Show, Celebrity Female; Best Musical Director (Tracy Stark); Best CD Release (Hard Rain).

Maxine Linehan: An American Journey, Terminus Recording Studios--Staging a show in a mid-town recording studio for the production of a live CD was a bit awkward, but there was nothing awkward about the singing of this lovely Ireland-born soprano, who chronicled her journey to U.S. citizenship with charming personal stories and a mix of Broadway tunes and contemporary pop songs. Discovered by cabaret impresario Scott Siegel, Linehan possesses the vocal chops and performing potential to become a New York cabaret star. Projected BWW Award nomination category: Best Female Vocalist.

Karen Oberlin & Sean Harkness: A Wish, Metropolitan Room/Kitano--You couldn't wish for a more sublime duo than this supple-voiced songstress paired with a sensational strummer who performed a cornucopia of love songs. In their CD release show at Kitano in February, and then a residency at the Met Room in the spring (see video, below), Harkness' guitar licks beautifully complimented Oberlin's vocals to produce a romantically drenched show. Are there more Oberlin/Harkness collaborations to come? One can only wish. Projected BWW Award nomination categories: Best Duo or Group Show; Best Female Vocalist, Best CD Release, Best Non-Piano Instrumentalist (Harkness).

Maude Maggart: The Door Opened, Café Carlyle--She's not as ubiquitous on the New York cabaret scene as many other acclaimed singers and it's shame we don't get to hear her more often. As Maggart again displayed in this late February show, she is a delightful enchantress with an ethereal mezzo soprano sound that is simultaneously subtle and seductive. Her ballad heavy set dreamily explored the various stages of romantic love, from infatuation to happily-ever-after. Projected BWW Award nomination categories: Best Female Vocalist; Best Show, Female.

Marilyn Maye: Tribute to Johnny Carson, 54 Below--There's an expression they use in baseball about great hitters that goes, "He can get out of bed and get a hit." Well, this cabaret icon can get out of bed and produce a hit show. Maye's nostalgic and heartfelt tribute to the late, great Tonight Show host (for a run in May and another in late June) was also a commemoration of her record 76 appearances (for a singer) on the show. Projected BWW Award nomination categories: Best Female Celebrity Vocalist; Best Show, Celebrity Female.

Tanya Moberly: I Love NY Songwriters, Don't Tell Mama--With a performing style that could be called, "Speak-little-and-carry-a-big-voice," Moberly has long been one of New York cabaret's most powerful vocalists. Unfortunately, that talent hadn't translated into a consistently solid show until last November (just under the wire for BWW Award consideration) when she delivered the best tunes of local songwriters--from funny to ferocious--and made them her own (see video, below, of Moberly singing a Mary Liz McNamara song). She won a 2013 Bistro Award for "Best Theme Show." Projected BWW Award nomination categories: Best Female Vocalist; Best Musical Director (Steven Ray Watkins); Best Non-Piano Instrumentalist (Bradley Bosenbeck, Violin)

Marissa Mulder: At the Café Carlyle and Living Standards, Metropolitan Room--The 2013 BroadwayWorld New York Cabaret Performer of Year Award winner ended last year with a delicious two-show run at the Carlyle, and then appeared in a slew of variety shows and special events before starring in a show produced and directed by songwriter Tom Toce. While the concept and the set may have been flawed, Mulder was again practically flawless in delivering an eclectic mix of contemporary Broadway and pop songs. Projected BWW Award nomination category: Best Female Vocalist.

Mark Nadler: Running Wild-Songs and Scandals of the Roaring '20s, 54 Below--Cabaret's reigning "wild man" outdid even himself with this energetic, entertaining, and deliciously decadent tribute to the hedonistic 1920s Jazz Age. Relating ribald tales in story and song about London drug dens, promiscuous Hollywood actresses, murderous cougars, and early Greenwich Village drag queens, Nadler bounced from the piano into the audience and back again, once again proving he is among New York's most flamboyant yet erudite performers. Projected BWW Award nomination categories: Best Celebrity Male Vocalist, Best Show, Celebrity Male.

Vivian Reed: An Evening With . . . at 54 Below--If New York Knicks basketball announcer and rhyming wordsmith Walt Frazier had described this former Broadway star's comeback show, he might have called her act, "Gyrating, Pulsating, and Captivating." Reed's performance was powerful and passionate on songs ranging from Great American Songbook standards to R & B and jazz (see video, below). Reed pulled out all the stops with a five-piece orchestra, a guest Musical Director (Fred Barton), three backup singers, and three special guest singers. Projected BWW Award nomination categories: Best Female Celebrity Vocalist; Best Show, Celebrity Female.

Winter Rhythms Festival at Urban Stages--After five years presenting a mix of highly-praised cabaret and jazz shows, previews of new productions, original variety shows, and musical theater pieces (both old and new), Urban Stages has firmly established this entertaining 12-day festival (produced by lyricist and cabaret show director Peter Napolitano) as a seasonal series staple (and it's also an educational outreach fundraiser). Last year's highlights included a 100th Birthday Tribute to Mary Martin. Projected BWW Award nomination category: Best Variety Show/Recurring Series.

Steve Schachlin: Tales From the Bonus Round, Metropolitan Room/Urban Stages--Schachlin presented this intensely personal set of original songs in two different venues between late October and March, and it was arguably one of the surprisingly satisfying shows of the year (the CD was a 2013 BWW Award nominee). Many numbers chronicled the songwriter's emotions when he was near death from AIDS in the 1990s, but the set was also uplifting and life affirming, and he delivered his own songs with clarity and passion. Projected BWW Award nomination category: Best Male Vocalist

Corinna Sowers-Adler: Let Me Sing and I'm Happy, Stage 72/Metropolitan Room; By Request, 54 Below--You're officially on the New York cabaret map when you're invited to sing at the October Cabaret Convention at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall, and then you get a solo show date at 54 Below (in May, presenting her ninth installment of a popular show built around audience requests). In between, Corinna presented a set of songs she loves at two different venues, and with her powerhouse soprano she established herself as one of New York cabaret's best young singers. Projected BWW Award nomination category: Best Female Vocalist

Jon Weber: From Joplin to Jarrett, Metropolitan Room--While he may be able to play everything from Joni Mitchell (for Lauren Fox) to Peggy Lee (for Stacy Sullivan), one of New York's best musical directors is really a jazzman at heart. In this one-man cabaret musical documentary tracking the evolution of jazz piano over the past century (show review to come), Weber was entertaining and illuminating and dazzled at the keyboard, whether playing ragtime or cool jazz. Last year, he earned a special BWW Award for "Excellence in Musicianship," and is a leading candidate for that prize again this year.

Terri White: Four Score, 54 Below--The Broadway and nightclub veteran took last year's BroadwayWorld Award for Best One-Show Special Event and with this late June effort she made her case for winning it again. Part career autobiography, part greatest hits package, this show was Terri at her indefatigable and terrific best as she wowed the 54 Below audience with songs from Simon to Sondheim. She even broke out the tap shoes and played percussion on liquor bottles. Projected BWW Award nomination category: Best One-Show Special Event.

Frank Wildhorn, Jane Monheit and Clint Holmes: Frank Wildhorn & Friends, Café Carlyle--In April 2013, the celebrated Broadway and pop composer joined forces with two 2013 BroadwayWorld New York Cabaret Award winners (Best Jazz Vocalist and Best Male Celebrity Vocalist, respectively) for a Las Vegas show that became a CD and a Vegas PBS-TV special. The trio brought the set featuring Wildhorn's greatest hits to the Carlyle in late January (see video, below) for a delightfully entertaining show that made one wish Holmes performed in New York as often as Monheit. Projected BWW Award nomination category: Best Duo or Group Show.

Karen Wyman: Second Time Around, Metropolitan Room--The Bronx-born belter with the Eydie Gorme-like sound was the inspirational comeback story of the year, staging her new show last October, December, and March after more than 20 years on the singing shelf. Filled with solid renditions of Great American Songbook standards, her entertaining show and endearing performance made it seem as if she never left, and she was rewarded with a 2013 Bistro Award. Projected BWW Award nomination category: Best Celebrity Female Vocalist.

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