CABARET LIFE NYC: One Reviewer's BEST AND MOST EXCITING NEW YORK CABARET PERFORMERS For 2013
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
In this space back in mid-July, I offered up my list of the Best New York Cabaret Performances for the first half of 2013 (based only on the shows I had seen, of course) and I thought about coming up with a similar list for the second half of this year. But while there have been some wonderful performances and shows since the summer began, they just weren't as plentiful so I felt that idea would be, well, kinda repetitive. So I conceived of something that would at least excite me more (and since I write this stuff gratis, I'm all about turning myself on) and settled on picking those performers I feel were the best and most exciting in cabaret this year.
Now you're probably asking, "Why perforMERS and not perforMANCES?" At the risk of boring you, my dear readers, with another one of my interminable baseball analogies, it's kind of like the difference between picking the "Player of the Year" and the "Most Valuable Player." (Okay, I know this is already a stretch, but stay with me.) In baseball, the "Player of the Year" is the one who produces the most amazing statistics, but the "Most Valuable Player" is the guy who not only has great numbers but also has been integral to his team winning a championship. What's the cabaret-based analogy? Actually, not much (got ya!), but in this context it's the difference between people who were the most entertaining and ubiquitous in various cabaret shows throughout the year as opposed to those who stood out in one particular run of a show or an occasional appearance.
Again, this list is based only on performers I was able to see and don't include bold-faced name celebs who did star-turn runs at 54 Below (even if I did see and love a few of them). So listed alphabetically by first name (since they aren't being ranked you gotta have some semblance of a system), here are one reviewer's Best New York Cabaret Performers of 2013. Happy and Healthy 2014 to one and all.
Ann Hampton Callaway: Starting the list with the proverbial "no-brainer," the self-proclaimed cabaret "Diva" dazzled audiences during the run of her Sarah Vaughan Tribute Show at Dizzy's Jazz Club at Lincoln Center and her recent Songs I Wished I'd Written at 54 Below. The former is up for multiple 2013 BroadwayWorld NYC Cabaret Awards, and the latter likely will be next year. In between those two shows, she and sister Liz Callaway delighted their fans bringing back their show Sibling Revelry to 54 Below (see video below). Smart, funny, engaging, accessible, and with great pipes, Ann also gets my vote as the current Queen of American cabaret.
Cabaret Musicians: They are indispensable and underrated and should never be unappreciated. One of the most impressive aspects of the New York cabaret scene is the sheer breadth and depth of the talented musicians playing in these shows, whether it's the Musical Director/Pianists, the guitarists, bass players, drummers, horn players, etc. Particularly impressive again this year (they popped up everywhere) were MDs Jon Weber, Barry Levitt, Bill Zeffiro, Tracy Stark, and Don Rebic, guitarists Sean Harkness and Peter Calo, bass players Ritt Henn, Jon Burr, and Tom Hubbard, and drummers Ray Marchica and David Silliman. And that list just scratches the surface. The best of New York cabaret wouldn't exist without them.
Carole J. Bufford: Her outstanding performance in Body & Soul at the Metropolitan Room was one of the best shows of the year and would be enough to merit inclusion on this list. (Check out her amazing rendition of "Cry Me a River" in video below.) But she did so much more than that, just nailing guest star turns all over town, including at October's Cabaret Convention, Scott Siegel's Broadway Ballyhoo, and Lauren Fox's Woodstock Tribute Show at 54 Below, where Bufford bravely channeled Janis Joplin singing "Summertime." Possessing a powerful belt and a charming stage presence, she'll be culminating a great 2013 as the cover girl for the January/February 2014 issue of Cabaret Scenes Magazine (profiled by yours truly) and few in cabaret deserve such recognition more.
Fabulous Females--Natalie Douglas, Terese Genecco, Jane Monheit: There are so many wonderful women singer/entertainers in the New York cabaret scene, it's often difficult to keep a list of the best to a manageable number. So I decided not to fight it. Here's a triumverate of passionate performers who are among the cream of the crop in the cabaret craft but possessing very different and distinctive styles. Natalie's the Great American Songbook and Pop devotee, Terese is the 1940's-'60s throwback to the Rat Pack Era, and Jane is the contemporary Jazz Queen. In addition to two superb shows this year--one at Birdland (Scrapbook 2.0, see video below) and her debut at Café Carlyle--Natalie Douglas was one of those go-to singers for anyone producing a variety show during 2013. After four-and-a-half years at the Iridium performing her monthly show with her "Little Big Band," diminutive dynamo Terese Genecco took a hiatus from that regular gig, but still appeared all over town, presenting her own show or guesting for other shows at 54 Below, The Laurie Beechman, The Cutting Room, and The Sugar Bar, among others. And when she wasn't the front singer, she was pounding the drums for other singers at The Concerts at City Greens. Since Jane Monheit has become a national jazz singing star, she gigs much more on the road than in New York City, but she still produced exceptional shows in the Apple this year. At Birdland in late May, she sang beautiful tunes from her latest CD, "The Heart of the Matter," and in August she dazzled in a one-night only show at 54 Below. Monheit will be starting 2014 with a bang in New York, as she's booked at the Blue Note for two dates in January (11-12).
Joe Iconis & The Family: After years performing his Rock n' Roll Jamboree, Halloween Show and Christmas Special at the Laurie Beechman, the prolific young songwriter and his "merry band of musical theater misfits" now rock out at 54 Below for three or more runs a year and they are all just one big hootenanny of fun. Featuring around 20 of Joe's best friends (from his NYU days and since) who transform his wonderful compositions into mini-theater pieces (i.e. "Broadway Here I Come"--see Molly Hager singing it in video below--and "The Goodbye Song," which were both featured on the last season of NBC's Smash), this is one of the most entertaining group shows in cabaret.
Lauren Fox: While neither her Joni Mitchell/Leonard Cohen tribute show or her homage to late 1960s music that came out of Laurel Canyon were 2013 shows, she and her fabulous band led by Musical Director Jon Weber staged them at the Metropolitan Room throughout the year and both shows seemed to get better with every performance. (See promo video for Canyon Folkies show below.) If that wasn't enough, Fox produced and performed in two of the best variety/group shows of the year--a benefit rock concert to raise money for the Rockaways victims of Hurricane Sandy at the Met Room in January, and a Woodstock Tribute Show at 54 Below in August. For good measure, she also directed one of the most compelling shows of the year, Marissa Mulder's tribute to Tom Waits. Fox has become a cabaret iconoclast (and is proud of it) and will push the performing envelope again in January at Stage 72 (with bassist Ritt Henn) in a new show featuring surreal songs from David Lynch films (Jan 9, 18, 23 and 24).
Marilyn Maye: I was one of those people fortunate enough to ring in 2013 at the Metropolitan Room watching this cabaret legend perform the second of two shows she staged on New Year's Eve. From there, it seemed as if the indefatigable octogenarian never stopped, with two critically acclaimed long runs at 54 Below--in March (see video below) and October--and doing guest spots in more variety shows than you can count, include a recent holiday gig at Town Hall. You'd think that by next week she'll decide to rest, but au contraire. She'll be back at the Met Room to greet 2014, and then perform seven more nights starting January 3.
Marissa Mulder: The young, charming honey-haired songstress had a breakout year in 2013, which was detailed in my recent review of her lovely Café Carlyle debut (http://bit.ly/1d26Bkp). Her popularity has reached a point where she is asked to appear in a bazillion variety shows (she stunned the audience at October's Cabaret Convention singing the song in the video below), but her season highlight was also one of the best cabaret shows of the year--her erudite and electrifying tribute to the most introspective and descriptive stories in the Tom Waits songbook at the Metropolitan Room (recently released as a "Live" CD). Her 2013 successes are going to be hard to top, but as good as she is now she still has room to grow--and plenty of time to do it.
Open Mic/Variety Show Hosts: Before I became a reviewer a little more than three years ago, I had started going to open mics such as Dana Lorge's Wednesday night extravaganzas at the Iguana and Mark Janas' Sunday evening soirees at Etcetera, Etcetera, so I'll always feel a special attachment to these congenial affairs. They not only give singers of all ages a chance to work material and have a moment of glory, they allow reviewers to discover new talents. But these open mics and variety shows wouldn't be as fun and fascinating as they are without their personable and engaging hosts. The best of the best throughout this past year---besides the hilarious, bling-encrusted Dame Dana (who now holds up monthly at the Metropolitan Room) and the erudite keyboard master Janas' (whose "Classical Corner" piano breaks alone are worth the price of admission)--were the dapper and dynamic Jim Caruso with Cast Party at Birdland, the wild, wacky, and wonderful Susie Mosher and Backstage at 54 Below (see video below), and the classy and convivial Raissa Katona Bennett with her spring/summer outdoor Concerts for City Greens at Tudor City.
William Blake: He started blowing the roof off of cabaret clubs in 2012 with his Etta James tribute show and continued rocking rooms all through this year. Two days after picking up last year's BroadwayWorld Award for Best Male Vocalist in February, he packed Joe's Pub with the Etta James show (which had encores at the club in May and August, see video below). Then in April he brought the Etta show to the Café Carlyle for a stunning debut at the prestigious venue. And his July "Birthday Bash" at Birdland is in the running for a 2013 BroadwayWorld Award for "Best One-Show Special Event." Now he's closing his sensational season with two shows at Birdland on Christmas night and December 26. Blake is a rising cabaret/nightclub star showing no signs of slowing down.