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Cabaret’s Up-and-Coming: The “Metrostar” Competition

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Being in The Metropolitan Room on Monday the 29th was like attending a massive reunion, or actually five of them simultaneously. Five contingents of friends and family were abuzz and on hand to cheer the finalists for this year’s “Metrostar Talent Challenge” whose initial pool of sixty solo singers had been gradually whittled down. Through eight weeks of performance, critique and elimination, the house has been packed with both dedicated supporters and the curious cabaret public interested in witnessing the appearance and evolution of new talent.

It was difficult to keep audience members in their seats before the show began. People ran back and forth across the room to greet one another and catch-up. Laughter, hugs, and anticipation filled the room. Two of the contest’s three permanent judges, the critics Roy Sander and Rob Lester, were joined by Booking Manager Tanya Holt and Producer Joseph Macchia. Guest judges for the evening were Television Personality Bill Boggs (My Generation), Broadway actress Doreen Montalvo (In the Heights) and T. Oliver Reid, the 2010 Metrostar winner.

The innately quick and wry Tom Gamblin* (left, with Fran Leonardis) acted as host, offering introduction and his own comic number about the frustrating New York transit system written to music from “Once on this Island” (music Steve Flaherty.) Then it was off to the races.

Maria Ottavia (left) reminded me of Blossom Dearie. Her completely original rendition of “Great Balls of Fire” (Jerry Lee Lewis) began in a small, sweet, breathy voice commanding lyrical attention. The choice made surprising sense. Accompanied by Matthew Ward on piano, Ottavia opened up wide before the song ended but never lost the idiosyncratic nature of her interpretation. The lovely “Listen to My Heart (David Friedman) evoked just the right hopefulness and joy. This is a very personable performer whose voice is not as sure as it might be, but who has an appealing style.

The young, pretty Marissa Mulder offered an almost balladic version of “Come Fly with Me” (Jimmy Van Heusen/ Sammy Cahn). It was grand to hear the mostly neglected verse. Mulder exuded the upbeat pleasure of the song, though there was less swingy ease than is its due and more volume than necessary to get the message across. “But Beautiful” (Jimmy Van Heusen/ Johnny Burke) began acapella, an effective choice, and suited her voice and demeanor. Bill Boggs commented that she has a lovely stage presence. She has. The talented Karen Oberlin was present to support Marissa. Bill Zeffiro was at the piano.

Fran Leonardis, a petite woman with a pink streak in her hair and style rather like Martha Raye in her heyday, delivered terrific, funny, personal patter as lead in to the classic, “I Don’t Care” (Jean Lenox/Harry O’ Sutton). Her vocal was strong and exuberant. With “It Will Never Be That Way” (Marvin Laird/Joel Paley from the satirical Ruthless) she showed us her abilities with emotional range. Leonardis has great timing, stage ease, and good pipes. We haven’t seen the last of her. Matthew Ward accompanied.

Stacey Todd Holt (left) the surviving man, performed the quirky “Back to College” (Robert Lopez/Jeff Marx from Avenue Q), which eminently suited his dapper bow tie and manner. Like many musical theater performers he looked over audience heads rather than at them missing an opportunity for connection. “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (George and Ira Gershwin) lacked the wistful tone implicit in its lyric. Tracy Stark accompanied.

Stacie Perlman (photo below) embodied cabaret storytelling with “The Babysitter’s Here” (Dar Williams), a piece of very unusual and extremely good material. We saw what she saw and experienced what she felt. With infectious delight and skilled phrasing, Perlman played a part buoyed by her excellent contralto. “Colored Lights” (Kander and Ebb from The Rink), was beautifully arranged and dynamically performed, ending the roster with well deserved cheers and enthusiastic applause. Tracy Stark at the piano.

While the judges conferred, we were treated to a few numbers each by Doreen Montalvo and T.Oliver Reid. Montalvo began with an easy, swingy version of “Walkin’ in Memphis” (Marc Cohn) followed by a beautifully arranged medley of Elvis Presley songs on which she put her own personal stamp. She had wonderful rapport with the audience, a skilled satin voice, and enough attitude to make the songs work for her. Reid sang “As Long as He Needs Me” (Lionel Bart) with the gentlest of voices, evocative longing, and a little trill in the long notes that sends shivers. The performance was romantic, deft, and elegantly minimal ending with the lightness of a drifting feather. Both performers were accompanied by Tracy Stark.

The outcome? Marissa Mulder (left), completing her second year in the competition, is the 2011 Metrostar Winner. The Metropolitan Room will present a week-long, prime time engagement of Mulder this winter, plus a multi-track “Live at The Metropolitan Room” recording of her new show. Stacie Perlman and Fran Leonardis, the first and second runners-up, will open for Mulder on alternating nights during the run and receive demo recordings of their appearances. Metrostar’s package of prizes and professional encouragements is worth over $10,000. The entire process offers unusual and valuable opportunity for constructive criticism, real time experience, and exposure. Woman Around Town will interview the excited Mulder prior to her performance.

Photos by Maryann Lopinto.

Photo at top: left to right, Stacey Todd Holt, Stacie Perlman, Fran Leonardis, Maria Ottavia, Marissa Mulder.

For the latest “Metrostar Talent Challenge” information, open to performers of all ages and backgrounds who have not played a major engagement at the Metropolitan Room, go to www.metropolitanroom.com

Tom Gamblin presents “A Way Back to Then” Thursday September 22 & Tuesday October 11. the Metropolitan Room.

Photos by Maryann Lopinto

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