CABARET LIFE NYC: My Second Half of 2014 Cabaret Journey or One Reviewer's Long Procrastination Special as We Bid Farewell to Another Year of Show Hopping
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
As I was watching total pro Liz Callaway's delightful opening night of her latest run of shows at 54 Below (she'll also be there on 12/26-27 at 7 pm, and you can read Alix Cohen's pithy and positive review here), I realized it would be my last cabaret foray of a year during which I probably saw about 75 shows at the various venues around our fair city. As in any year, the quality of the performances ranged from the glorious (particularly shows involving Ann Hampton Callaway, Carole J. Bufford, Maxine Linehan, Mark Nadler, Jon Weber, Karen Oberlin, Sean Harkness, Joe Iconis, and Barb Jungr) to the god-awful (discretion prevents me from citing the specifics, but let's just say I didn't review those), but that's what makes the cabaret art form--especially in New York--so fascinating and frustrating at the same time. During the four years I've spent reviewing more than 200 shows (and perhaps attending another 50 more), the inescapable conclusion is that New York City is teeming with immensely talented and underrated performers who deserve the spotlight, but it is also a crazy melting pot for anyone who wants to experience their moment of glory on a cabaret stage.
If you've been a regular reader of this particular reviewer's musings, you know that every year there are long stretches of time where I just haven't been able to critique all the shows I've seen that deserve commentary. So I end up playing what they call in sports, "Catch-up ball," and post a mash up of belated reviews from past shows. It's kind of like a critic's version of the song "Six Months Out of Every Year," from Damn Yankees. Give or take a month or two, that's usually the time period during which I store unpublished reviews in my fevered brain (as well as saving my copious notes) and then unload them all in one seemingly endless column--like this one is going to be. If my cabaret-show reviewing days will be over (as chronicled here), I might as well go out with a bang--and relieve my procrastination guilt during holiday season. Now I can scratch one New Year's resolution off the list.
During my time in the world of New York cabaret, I think the most fascinating word in the lexicon of cabaret performers I heard with regularity was "Get," especially as it relates to their reactions to reviews. The phrase "doesn't (or does) get it," has been around a while, mostly as something a woman may utter when frustrated with the male of the species or by a disgruntled co-worker at a company meeting. But this simple three-letter word has immense meaning when a cabaret performer (or, I suppose, anyone whose work is judged by a critic) says, "He (or she) gets me." Over these four years, a few performers have told me, "You get me" or told friends "He gets me" after receiving a positive review and it kind of took me aback at first. I felt the phrase implied I had some unique power of perception into a performer that nobody else had and that's way overrating my insight. Even more uncomfortable was thinking the remark came from a performer who, no matter how accomplished, was somewhat insecure or believes they are misunderstood. But I suppose most performers--especially in cabaret--struggle with those feelings all the time. So if it makes someone feel better that I "get them" then, hey, whatever works.
One cabaret performer I absolutely do not "Get" is Emily Bergl. Based on reviews I've read in other publications and websites, this apparently puts me in the minority. I didn't see her shows Kidding On the Square at the Algonquin in 2011 or NY I Love You at the Carlyle in 2012, but when I caught her over-the-top act during one-off performances at the 2012 Cabaret Convention or at one of Scott Siegel's Town Hall extravaganzas, I wondered what all the fuss was about. But I liked her turn on Tom Waits' "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," at the Symphony Space's "Wall to Wall Cabaret" last May, so when she launched a new show, Til I Get It Right, at 54 Below in early June, I wanted to give her a chance over a longer, thematic set. Well, for me, she still hasn't gotten it right.
Bergl's opening number take on Britney Spears' "Toxic" wasn't quite the operative word for this show, but the faux jazz arrangement was uneven and awkward and things didn't get much better from there. "Makin' Whoopie" could have been a good song for her impish sexuality, but vocally she didn't bring anything new to the suggestive classic. Trying to turn the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein ballad "People Will Say We're In Love" into a lyric coming from an angry girlfriend simply butchered a beautiful song. And her mash up arrangement of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" with Tracy Chapman's "For My Lover" was so grating that only my responsibility as a reviewer kept me in my seat until the merciful end of this show. I suppose there are directors (in this case it was Sarna Lapine) who are telling Bergl that her approach to songs and cabaret is unique, quirky, gutsy, and iconoclastic, but from this vantage point her performance style doesn't enhance what comedic gifts or vocal ability she obviously possesses. I still just don't "get" her.
On July 4th weekend, I expressed my patriotism by visiting 54 Below Sings 1776 and it might have been the most fun I've had at a show this year (see highlights in video below, thanks to Russ Weatherford). Phil Geoffrey Bond deserves a Congressional Medal for creating this new variety series (and I'm tough on variety shows) in which musical theater and cabaret actor/singers pay homage to the scores of classic Broadway musicals (and in some cases, the songbooks of pop stars or composers). Ably directed by Lucia Spina (who also beautifully performed the Abigail Adams songs), reverentially musical directed by Jacob Yates, cleverly hosted by Rob Maitner (whose humorous trivia asides kept the show bouncing along), and featuring the marvelous Michael McCormick, who played John Adams in the 1997 Broadway revival, this version of 1776 was more thrilling than watching the MACY's Fireworks show. The entire cast (also including Ben Crawford, Paul Michael Valley, Daniel Marcus, Aaron Ramey, Kathleen Monteleone, Patrick Mellen, Jacob Hoffman, Brian Charles Rooney, David Allen Marshall, and Adam Shapiro) was superb and should have their names included on the document along with John Hancock's.
If anyone ever doubted the power of a New York Times review (and how foolish it would be to try) all they had to do was visit the Metropolitan Room on the July 22 evening I went to see jazz songbird Gabrielle Stravelli. It was five days into her two-week long run and just after a rave review of her Marilyn Maye-directed show from Stephen Holden (another savvy reviewer with the initials SH--hmmm), and the power of suggestion was on full display. There was a palpable pre-show buzz in the packed house and Stravelli received a standing ovation before she even sang a note. Hey, if the New York Times says you're great, who are the peons to argue? It's not that Stravelli didn't deserve the kudos, as she has been one of jazz cabaret's best-kept secrets for a long time. With a subtly powerful voice and a gift for smooth lyric interpretation, she's long been a favorite of the cabaret insiders. Her Metropolitan Room show--which was more a one-hour concert than a story-themed cabaret presentation--was sublime, but in this corner it didn't quite merit the breathless superlatives.
If there was a minor theme to Stravelli's show it was early in the set where references to "dreaming" or "dream states" were prevalent, starting with her effortless rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Happy Talk" from South Pacific ("You've got to have a dream, if you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true . . ."). In quick secession came Stravelli's "favorite" Cole Porter tune, the languid "Dream Dancing," and a dreamy medley of "I Had the Craziest Dream" with "I Can Dream Can't I? Jazzy and cool, she turned the tables on a medley of "Devil and the Deep Blue Sea"/ "You Turned the Tables on Me." Stravelli's version of an Ella Fitzgerald-penned chart of "Goody Goody" was delivered, as the singer said, with "Sicilian vindictiveness," and she knew exactly the attitude every word of the song should express, scatting at the end as if it was a kiss off to an old lover. Combining the bluesy "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" with Dolly Parton's "Touch Your Woman" was an inspired Motown-esque mash up--powerful, but thankfully it wasn't annoyingly overpowering.
After a wonderful extended scat on her finale, Bob Dorough's "Devil May Care," it was one of the rare times I've heard an audience at the Met Room actually clamor for an encore (oh, that Holden influence). It also may have been the only time when I saw a performer NOT deliver one. Ironic, since her next-to-last song in a set that came in just under an hour was an original (written with her pianist Joshua Richardson and bass player Pat O'Leary), "Runnin' Back For More."
As someone who about a year and half ago performed a cabaret show tribute to one of my pop songwriting heroes, Don McLean--and as a diehard baseball lover--I could really identify with fellow baseball fan Elaine St. George's homage to the songs of the late Steve Goodman (also a devout baseball guy) when I saw her show at the Iridium on July 27 (after she performed it several times at Don't Tell Mama during the Spring). Goodman was a tuneful and clever pop/folk/country composer who wrote delightful commentaries on pop culture and the flaws of contemporary society and St. George definitely covered the gamut of Goodman's songbook. But Steve Goodman was no Don McLean, let alone a Paul Simon, and there just wasn't enough great or diverse material to justify a 21-song set that about halfway through started sounding repetitive and mundane. And while St. George has often proven that she is a lovely singer, in this show her folky soprano at times sounded shrill and her lack of stage charisma was hard to overlook when her vocals did soar. This might have been a home run with about 25 percent fewer songs, but it ended up only being a standup double.
Speaking of home runs, there were a number of them in the show I saw at 54 Below just a few minutes after I left the St. George act at Iridium on July 27. Here She Comes Again: 54 Does Dolly [Parton] earned four bazooms, er, thumbs up. Scott Coulter deftly directed and when he sang his playful falsetto was perfect for the hand-clapping opener, "Two Doors Down" (he also produced a stirring rendition of "I Will Always Love You"). Among the show's other standout numbers were Lucia Spina filling up the audience's senses with her power belt on "Here You Come Again," while Jessica Hendy was also power personified on "Get Out and Stay Out" from the musical 9 to 5. Fay Ann Lee displayed her dramatic acting chops on the ultimate female rival song, "Jolene," while young Alex Getlin (in video above) brought the house down on the emotional, "Down From Dover." Natalie Douglas, who performed a highly praised solo Parton show at Birdland this past year, was great on the lonely female soliloquy "Single Women," and southern belle Carole J. Bufford (wearing a short black dress and red boots) was enjoyably sweet on "Hard Candy Christmas." K.T. Sullivan, Michael Holland (piano and guitar), Tim DiPasqua, and Parton's real-life niece, Mary Jane Haskell, were solid. It was Dollywood for a night.
As someone long fascinated with sexual subcultures and how people self-identify according to gender, I was anxious to see Nellie McKay's early August 54 Below show, A Girl Named Bill: The Life and Times of Billy Tipton. What would the mysterious and mercurial Ms. McKay do with the story of the jazz musician who led a double life; born female but presenting throughout adulthood as a male, primarily so she-he could pursue the love of music as a bandleader?
Featuring pieces of nearly 30 songs, McKay's show was more performance art than cabaret and included costume changes, cheesy nightclub jokes, some snazzy piano playing, stream of consciousness story tangents, and impressions of two iconic entertainers. Entering the stage looking all little girlish in a pink dress and beige hat, McKay as Dorothy Tipton expresses her true life's desire through Dave Frishberg's "I Want to be a Sideman." While she transforms into Billy off-stage, her four-piece band brakes into "Jazz Up Your Lingerie," a 1931 pre-morals code ditty sung incredibly off-key by Claudette Colbert in the film, The Smiling Lieutenant. "How many sexes are there?" asks McKay as Billy. "The male sex, the female sex, and the insects." And we're off to the transgender races.
Since the songs demand McKay play a very feminine-voiced female sounding somewhat like a man her vocals don't always shine through, but that almost seems intentional. She sparkles at the piano, though, particularly playing the hell out of "Take the A Train," and pounding the keys Liberace style on "Prisoner of Love." In between, she sings Jimmy Durante's trademark song, "Inka Dinka Doo," complete with all kinds of one-liner shtick, and later in the show does an adorable Rex Harrison impression on "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?" from My Fair Lady. Although Tipton lived as a man, had long relationships with three different women, and adopted three sons, few knew of his double life until his death in 1989 at age 74. After McKay's finale on Steve Allen's "This Could Be The Start of Something Big," drummer Kenneth Salters playing Allen doing an early Tonight Show asks McKay as Tipton, "How did you pass all the years?" "Well," replies Billy, "a good prosthetic and a love of music."
On the men's side of the cabaret hit parade, Adam Shapiro has been one of those rising young stars with a bullet the way Carole J. Bufford, Marissa Mulder, Lauren Fox, and Jennifer Sheehan have been on the women's side the past couple of years. After two enjoyable solo shows and standing out in a number of variety shows and open mics, Shapiro's real cabaret breakout came in 2013 with his MAC Award-winning show Guide to the Perfect Breakup. His large, bearded profile was really enhanced after he appeared as the loveable teddy bear "Bella" in the 2014 HBO film The Normal Heart. Shapiro, his cabaret director Peter Napolitano, and Musical Director Barry Levitt smartly parlayed that exposure into a new show, Nothing Normal, which played at 54 Below on September 2 (and will return at the Metropolitan Room on February 16).
Shapiro is one of those performers that you take to your bosom because he exudes such joy on stage, along with a comfortable confidence, a pleasant and sturdy baritone voice, and comedic aplomb. Nothing Normal was punctuated by a rich set list that made the show seem enjoyably longer than it actually was, including a few Levitt-Napolitano cabaret "standards," and Shapiro's signature song "Fats Whitney," a clever mash up of Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin" with Houston's "Saving All My Love For You." If Shapiro keeps getting better--and there's no reason to believe he won't--audiences will be saving all their love for him for a long time to come.
I saw a number of other shows in September, which I'll discuss later in this column within a group of 15 review "snippets," including a few shows already critiqued in more detail by my BWW reviewing colleagues. But we interrupt this chronological cabaret journey to jump to the second half of October, a period highlighted by the 25th Cabaret Convention (20-23) sponsored by the Mabel Mercer Society and produced by their Artistic Director and Cabaret performer K.T. Sullivan. Over the three years I've attended this extravaganza at the Lincoln Center's Rose Theater, I've developed a definite love-hate relationship with the event. For one thing, as already mentioned, I'm not a big fan of cabaret variety shows in general, but in the Convention's case (a must-see for a reviewer) the arrow tipped more toward dislike when in 2013 it expanded from three to four days. You would think that with enough fine singer/performers, and enough ticket sales for almost a week worth of shows, that would be good news for New York cabaret. But somehow the MM Society added a day of shows and still, inexplicably, three out of the four shows ran even longer (of course, the pithiest one--Night Three--was the one I missed). Metropolitan Room Managing Partner Bernie Furshpan thinks that he's going to be awarded a "Guinness Book of World Records" citation for the "Longest Running Variety Show" when he stages a marathon 60-hour event at his club from January 1 to 4, 2015. Sorry to break the news to you Bernie, but the most recent Cabaret Convention beat you to it--or so it seemed.
Act I of Night One ran so long, I couldn't even stay for the second act (and missed seeing Liam Forde presented with the Julie Wilson Award) or I would have had to skip dinner with my daughter and likely miss the opening of Joe Iconis' concert production of his musical, Bloodsong of Love at 54 Below (more on that to come), which didn't start until 9:30. And the Cabaret Convention starts at 6 pm! If a variety show--or even a cabaret awards show for that matter--can't come in at two hours, 45 minutes or under, someone should investigate. In spite of my growing impatience during the first show, I did manage to see some fine performances. Violinist/host Aaron Weinstein (in photo, a bit of a weird choice as a host for a pianist/singer theme) came across as a cute Woody Allen with a fiddle. Tony DeSare's "Saber Dance Boogie" was imaginative, frenetic fun. With Kander & Ebb's "Bobos" from The Act, Mark Nadler brought his usual energy and pizzazz and for a few minutes turned Rose Hall into an intimate piano bar. Eric Yves Garcia was a winner on a cool, retro 1950s-style ballad, "For Losers Only"--written by Bill Carlucci and Ray Errol Fox--introducing the new song with Sinatra-like panache. Steven Lutvak (of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder fame) brought the house down with his cabaret classic "Bagel Makers to the Tsars," and Steve Ross conveyed maestro magnificence during a Cole Porter/Edith Piaf medley where his "Gay Paree" vocal led to stirring instrumentals on Piaf classics. Time at end of Act I: 8 pm. I needed a bloodletting so I left for Bloodsong.
Although Night Two was almost as long, I survived until the end. After all, it was Julie Wilson night and you don't walk out when the lovely Grande Dame of Cabaret is being honored. On top of that Ann Hampton Callaway was receiving the "Mabel Mercer Award" at the end of Act I, which featured some fine performances. T. Oliver Reid was in rare form, producing a totally beautiful rendition of "But Beautiful" and incorporating a nifty dance break that made it seemed as if he was dancing with the event honoree. Karen Wyman's "Why Can't I?" was an early showstopper, Christine Andreas' "Bill" from Show Boat was simply breathtaking, and Lauren Fox (photo left) was absolutely angelic on Kurt Weill's "Stay Well." The first act culminated with Cabaret Royalty; K.T. Sullivan and her mom Elizabeth singing their original "As Long As We Sing" as a tribute to Julie Wilson, Marilyn Maye again reasserting her presence as a cabaret great with "I'm Still Here," and Callaway accepting her Mercer Award with a succulent "Someone To Watch Over Me."
Unfortunately, Act II was a total drag until about midway through when luscious lass Maxine Linehan woke up the audience with "Something Better Than This" (from Sweet Charity) into Noel Coward's "Sail Away." 2013 Bistro Award Winner Nathan Chang brought some needed comic relief to the festivities with "Extra," his original song about being just another body on a TV show or film set. Corinna Sowers-Adler was her usual powerful-voiced self on "I Want To Be A Prima Donna" and having Julie Wilson's actor son Holt McCallany on hand for a rousing version of "That's Life" was a nice touch. Actually, McCallany and Broadway performer Carol Woods (who provided a stirring "Here's To Life" finale) kind of saved the day and Act II right after the borderline burlesque presence and campy performance of a Florida-based singer named Deborah Silver, who somehow needed a six-piece band, including three horns, for "I Wanna Be Around." After that bit of garishness, the Cabaret Convention was the last place I wanted to be around.
After missing Night Three (the Andrea Marcovicci/Jeff Harnar hosted tribute to songwriters Burton Lane and Yip Harburg) for a recovery day, I reluctantly returned for the final show tribute to the iconic Irving Berlin and for the most part was glad I did. The always buoyant and bodacious Klea Blackhurst hosted and produced her hybrid of Ethel Merman and Bette Midler on "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to start the festivities. With Tedd Firth at the piano, Karen Oberlin was solid and sexy on "They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful." As usual, Sidney Myer (photo right) engendered a ROFLOL reaction from the audience with one of his sexually suggestive vintage songs, this year taking the stage wearing black satin pajamas with white pinstripes ("Someone told me it would be a longggg evening," he appropriately joked) on "Bad Bad Man." With Ricky Ritzel at the keys, Spider Saloff was superb on "Say It Isn't So," and mature newcomer Celia Berk was a delightful surprise on the funny "My Yiddisha Nightengale." The entire Rose Hall crowd got all farklempt when blind, black, and beautiful Peggy Eason ended Act I with "Count Your Blessings" and "God Bless America."
Thankfully, Act II was quick and painless. The highlights included Karen Mason's fun turn on "Steppin' Out," 2014 MetroStar Talent Winner Kristoffer Lowe showing off his lovely voice on "Mooshine Lullaby," Nicolas King's neat jazzy mash up on "Change Partners"/ "Let's Face the Music," and Mason (with John Treacy Egan) and Blackhurst (with Lowe) doing a fun four-part counterpoint on "You're Just in Love" and "We'll Have an Old-Fashioned Wedding." The finale was ideal, with some Columbia University Musical Theater students joining Blackhurst for her Merman turn on "There's No Business Like Show Business." Now if they'd only go back to a three-day show at no more than two and a half hours per, there'd be nothing like the Cabaret Convention.
15 More Quickie Reviews As We Say Farewell to 2014
Darron Cardosa, The Bitchy Waiter Show, Don't Tell Mama, September 6: He may be a "bitchy" waiter (photo) with a well-read blog, but he's a surprisingly delightful performer with a solid voice and keen sense of humor. Cardosa managed to be charming at the same time he was venting, whining, and complaining about serving unruly children, annoying senior citizens, rotten tippers, and large groups who demand separate checks. This was a clever and fun musical comedy cabaret show.
Minda Larsen, Johnny Mercer--Trav'lin' Light, Metropolitan Room, September 10: A Florida transplant who came to the Big City to study opera, Larsen delivered her tribute to the great Georgia-born songwriter with a Southern belle's sass and style. Though still a bit static on stage and needing to connect more with her audience, she's a confident performer who's good at delivering patter. She showed off her voice on everything from "Skylark" to "Moon River." Larsen's solid vocals and polished performance places her firmly in the "one to watch" group among young New York cabaret singers.
Randy Graff, Made In Brooklyn . . . Revisited, 54 Below, September 23: The lovely Broadway musical veteran offered a stylish, fun show which fell short of being Award-worthy because it didn't really deliver what the title suggested. This wasn't a story about her upbringing in Brooklyn as much as an excuse to sing classics composed by some Brooklyn-born songwriters. Aside from naturally acing "I Dreamed A Dream," the song she introduced as the original Fantine in "Les Mis," her best moment in the show was on a Bacharach/David medley of "Close To You"/ "I'll Never Fall in Love Again"/ "Alfie," the latter of which was superb.
Joshua Dixon, Fly Up!, The Duplex, September 28: One of the best male debut performers this year, Dixon actually made his cabaret bones last year in composer Scott Evan Davis' Picture Perfect revue. In his solid solo show (with great Musical Direction from Steven Ray Watkins), Dixon displayed a strong, supple musical theater style tenor--and an ability to sell the big finish power note--on 20 songs, ranging from "I Believe" from Book of Mormon to a rocking rendition of Grace Slick's "White Rabbit." With just five days left in the voting, he's leading for the BroadwayWorld Award for "Best Debut."
Annie Hughes, Times Like This . . . , Don't Tell Mama, October 2: If there was a BWW award for "Most Inspirational Performance of the Year," this New York cabaret veteran who now lives in Wisconsin would win it hands down. Last July, Hughes underwent spinal surgery and had a titanium plate inserted in her neck. A couple of months later she was on the stage at DTM (with her go-to band of Musical Director Daryl Kojak and bassist Ritt Henn), charming an extremely supportive audience that loved having her back. While she may no longer be the power soprano she was in her prime, Hughes' voice is still pretty formidable and expressive and she held the room spellbound from her opener on Jason Robert Brown's "I'm Not Afraid of Anything." Hughes' rendition of "My Favorite Things," was haunting, her "Laziest Gal in Town," a total hoot, and her "Defying Gravity" finale just perfect. It was simply a bravura performance. Come back soon, Annie.
Joe Iconis, Bloodsong of Love In Concert, 54 Below, October 20: In a psychological state bordering on bloodlust, I skipped out on the first night of the Cabaret Convention after Act I to catch this show and, man, did I make the right decision. As a full musical theater production in 2010, this wunderkind composer's Rock n' Roll spoof of spaghetti westerns was nominated for three Drama Desk Awards and rightly so. Featuring many of the immensely talented singer/actors from his Joe Iconis and the Family revues at 54 Below and the Laurie Beechman, there's much to love about Bloodsong, from the cleverly campy comedy to the deceptively excellent score, highlighted by the compelling group number "Last on Land." It's time for Clint Eastwood to roll into town and produce an Off-Broadway run of this one.
Sandra Bargman, The Edge of Everyday, The Duplex, November 2: Definitely the kind of edgy show you don't see everyday in cabaret, Bargman's act was more quirky and theatrical performance art. Entering in a long, black overcoat, wearing a spooky Carmen Miranda-style hat, and carrying a walking stick with an owl on top, Bargman's new-agey show had references to cemeteries, medicine women, and the Kama Sutra, which were often delivered in beat poet style. While Bargman struggles with her upper register notes, she's possesses a smoky alto that is soulful on bluesy torch songs. Not a show for those with conventional cabaret tastes, but it was interesting enough to see where the journey might lead.
Lauren Stanford, More Than You Know--A Helen Morgan Cabaret, Laurie Beechman Theatre, November 2: The winner of the 2013 MetroStar Talent Challenge had staged her solo cabaret debut earlier in the year (which I didn't see) with the title, I'm a Stranger Here Myself. (What was really strange is that her director Eric Michael Gillett didn't inform Stanford that the year before Mark Nadler had staged a cabaret and Off-Broadway show with the exact same title--not a great move for a performer just out of the box.) But the gutsy Stanford didn't stop there, almost immediately creating a tribute show to 1920s-'30s theater and film singing star Helen Morgan, most famous for originating the role of Julie LaVerne in Showboat. While presented as a one-off, Stanford will no doubt bring it back in 2015 and she should. This one-woman theatrical piece that is an ambitious show for someone so young, reveals Stanford to be a pretty good actress and a singer/performer in the style of Nellie McKay. The show--and her vocals--still need polishing, but the potential for cabaret stardom is definitely evident.
Kathleen France & Dawn Derow, Revolution, The Duplex, November 9: These two sexy songstresses (who were even comely in military garb) produced one of the best duo shows of the year with their musical commentary on war, peace, and patriotism. (Read Billie Roe's review here.) While there were a couple of flaws and missed opportunities (otherwise fine Musical Director Andrew David Sotomayor singing a weak arrangement of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," for example, and the momentum slowing a bit after a solid first quarter of the show), France and Derow revealed themselves to be delicious vocalists (especially France on "White Cliffs of Dover" and Derow on "Suicide Is Painless") and they produced a 21-gun salute of a show (directed by Lennie Watts) that paid tribute to the veterans of every war, of which there have been way too many.
Rain Collazo, A Tribute to the Artist Formerly Known As . . . , Don't Tell Mama, November 15: It's not everyday that a backup singer in a cabaret show catches your ear, but when I heard Rain Collazo supporting Carly Ozard during the latter's Bette Midler tribute show in late May, I did one of those "Who's That Girl?" takes with mouth agape. So I was anxious to hear Collazo's powerhouse voice tackle the songs of the enigmatic pop star Prince, and I was almost delirious with joy after I did (as was BWW reviewer Billie Roe, who's assessment is here). Collazo rocked on 15 numbers that included five medleys, tackling almost the entire Prince songbook as if she had starred in his music videos. She displayed emotion and her full vocal range on an amazing "Purple Rain," and her rendition of Musical Director Steven Ray Watkins' arrangement on "When Doves Cry" was to cry for. On "Glamorous Life," Callazo proved she could have been a hot Donna Summer/Patti Labelle style disco vocalist in the late '70s. If the show lacked anything it was in not offering the audience more about Collazo herself or hearing how she can handle more subtle and nuanced ballads. Hopefully, a future show, perhaps featuring a Great American Songbook or Broadway set, will reveal even more about Collazo and her vocal talent.
Stacy Sullivan, On The Air--Tribute to Marian McPartland, Don't Tell Mama, November 23: After a triumphant late September run at the York Theatre, the sultry singer who won kudos aplenty for her 2013 Peggy Lee tribute show, brought her latest homage to jazz pianist/composer and National Public Radio show host McPartland to Don't Tell Mama. (Read Billie Roe's BWW review here.) With current NYC Piano Jazz show host Jon Weber as Musical Director and the great Tom Hubbard on bass, Sullivan (photo left) was her usual enchanting and angelic self, especially on Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me." After that one, I wanted to come away with Stacy. A definite must-hear when she performs the set again at the Metropolitan Room on January 16 at 9:30.
Celia Berk, You Can't Rush Spring, Metropolitan Room, November 30: Maybe you can't rush spring, but you can certainly rush your cabaret career when you're starting it later in life. Celia Berk isn't wasting any time as this past year she released her highly-praised debut CD (of the same name), wowed the Cabaret Convention in October, and staged her solo debut show (read John Hoglund's BWW review here). And she went three-for-three. Berk's show--with strong support from Musical Director Alex Rybeck--featured "hidden gems from great songwriters," during which the audience discovered that Berk herself was a hidden gem. Although she could still loosen up a bit more on stage and vary her set list, Berk is funny, charming, and expressive, and possesses a highly appealing alto to mezzo range. Berk is definitely one to watch in 2015 and beyond.
Susan Winter, A Woman for All Seasons, Metropolitan Room, December 8: Like Celia Berk, Susan Winter is a mature performer only she's been at it for years and is the consummate cabaret pro. Her four-show run went from September through December, with the finale featuring Tedd Firth on piano and Tom Hubbard on bass. While the 18-song set list could have been trimmed to reduce the repetitive tone and some of the forced setup patter, the trio shined throughout with Winter displaying her experience, sense of humor, and her affinity for expertly vocalizing jazzy, swinging, and bluesy grooves.
Ann Hampton Callaway, Turning Points, 54 Below, November 28: Cabaret's reigning self-proclaimed "Diva" (but only in a good way) was back at 54 Below over the Thanksgiving weekend for the third successive year and we should all give thanks for that. (Read Alix Cohen's BWW review here.) The recent newlywed (to partner Kari Strand) produced perhaps her most personal show, but without being overly cloying or self-indulgent. Ann is too much fun and self-deprecating for that stuff. She's also become one of the ultimate cabaret song stylists, as she displayed on her original, bossa-inflected "I Sing," the showstopper "You're Gonna Hear From Me" (from the film Inside Daisy Clover), a sensual, jazzy take on "The Island," a minimalist, recording-quality vocal on "It Never Entered My Mind," and her usual visit to farklempt-ville, with a beautiful arrangement on Lennon and McCartney's "She's Leaving Home," only sung about her father. One of the best celebrity-singer cabaret shows of the year. Ann will be back at 54 Below on January 10 at 7 pm with a "Best Of Ann Hampton Callaway" show. How is she going to fit that into an hour?
Carole J. Bufford & Eric Yves Garcia, A Christmas Carole & A New Year's Yves, Laurie Beechman Theatre, December 18: They had me at the show title. I couldn't think of a better way to start a holiday season with a dose of good cheer (not to mention superb singing) than to check out this one-off show produced by two cabaret cuties who are stars ascendant. As you can also read in Billie Roe's review here, this show was a joy throughout, as Bufford and Garcia exuded fun, chemistry, mischievousness, and a super personable stage presence as a team. Musical Director/Pianist Matt Baker, who caught my ear at the Cabaret Convention right off the bat when he supported Aaron Weinstein's opening number on Night One, added to the great vibe with some S' Wonderful Gershwin-esque keyboard playing and a pretty cool vocal rendition of "The Christmas Song" to boot. Bufford and Garcia's wintry mix of story and song was delightfully warm. Same time, next year guys?
Meg Flather, Meg & John, Don't Tell Mama, December 21: Speaking of delightfully warm, that's the perfect description of Meg Flather's entire recent show, which also featured John Mettam on guitar as her only accompanist on a mix of 1960s and '70s covers and Flather's own lovely, cleverly written, and melodic folk/pop songs. [Read Remy Block's full review of Meg's show here.] Flather is one of New York cabaret's most underrated performers because she doesn't posture as a cabaret "insider" or shamelessly self-promote. Once again in this minimalist show, Flather displayed her ethereal Joni Mitchell-esque voice and her natural sense of humor, a funniness that is never forced. With her experience as a home shopping brand ambassador on QVC USA and The Shopping Channel of Canada, Flather is a natural on stage, possessing a friendly, conversational way of interacting with her audience. Her sweet, yet hilarious song sendup of Facebook posting ("You like me, like me, like me, like me!") is alone worth seeing the show if, as Flather plans, it's back in early March.
Well, kids, thanks for sticking with this until the 6,000-word end. Have a wonderful New Year and see you at the clubs in 2015.