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The Noël Coward Cabaret Award

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Tuesday night, in good time for our city-wide Noël Coward in New York Festival, The Mabel Mercer Foundation in association with The Noël Coward Foundation presented its third annual Noël Coward Cabaret Award Competition. West 42nd Street’s Laurie Beechman Theater was packed to the gills with entertainers and aficionados alike anticipating the master’s tuneful insouciance and balladic sincerity. Considered the first “crossover sensation,” Sir Noël epitomized the best and perhaps most multifaceted wit, style and talent of his era.

The Mabel Mercer Foundation, represented by its new Artistic Director and tonight’s mistress of ceremonies KT Sullivan, resplendent in top hat and tails, and Ken Starrett, North American Director of The Noël Coward Society, welcomed seven contestants, all professional vocalists. Each performed two songs accompanied by a pianist/arranger.

Julie Reyburn (accompanied by William Zeffiro) began the evening with her pretty rendition of the little known Most of Every Day. The vocalist sings as if she had classical training. World Weary emphatically follows seeming anything but jaded. Inflection of words like monooootone, however, is nifty and humorously dry.

Jeff Harnar (accompanied by Alex Rybeck) performs a wry Don’t put your daughter on the stage, “Mrs. Worthington,” but it’s his delicately interpreted version of Sail Away that stills the room. Harner looks into audience faces, arms at his sides, personifying wistful sweetness. Rybeck’s undulating piano sounds like gentle waves.

Amra-Faye Wright’s Bar on the Piccolo Marino is a little over the top, but terrific fun none-the-less. Wright’s gestures are gems. inflection of immortal lines like Funiculi, funicula, funnic-yourself is spot on. The charm of You Were There, is only slightly diminished by an unnecessarily big finish (accompanied by Mark Hummel).

Natalie Douglas (accompanied by Ted Firth) renders a completely lovely version of Chase Me Charlie with the subtlest of twinkles and If Love Were All with complete dramatic credibility. Douglas is completely focused on the truth and her joy is infectious. Firth rides tandem from waltz to whisper to thrall with his usual finesse.

Karen Oberlin (accompanied by William Zeffiro) moves across the stage as no one else has done, a storyteller acting out. Her rare interpretation of Something Very Strange embodies a woman in love- thrilled and somewhat surprised. Oberlin caresses the lyric until eyes closed, head back, she drifts into reverie.

Shana Farr (accompanied by William Zeffiro) offers the darkly funny There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner, a possible anthem for our time. *Her skilled, deadpan delivery makes the most of its sentiments. I’ll Follow My Secret Heart is operatically rendered, hands clasped. It’s enchanting, though a big ending gilds the lily.

Tony DeSare (accompanying himself) sings a lilting version of I’ll See You Again and Why Do the Wrong People Travel? with none of the sophisticated depth or distain innate to the lyrics. Perhaps with more or a different kind of life experience, DeSare will bring the comprehension to this particular table he exhibits more comfortably elsewhere.

After a brief intermission during which the audience socializes, KT Sullivan enacts an hysterical, doting letter from Greta Garbo to Noël Coward in Garbo’s voice and Jeff Harnar is announced as the winner.“My intention tonight was to be of service to the memory of Sir Noël Coward,” the modest vocalist says closing the evening.

Until next April.

This year’s judges included performers Lee Roy Reams and Daryl Sherman, former director of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Charles Bullock, series artistic director of the Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists, Deborah Grace Winer and musical director and arranger Lawrence Yurman.

*Lyrics for There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner worth a look.

Photo credit: Maryann Lopinto
Top photo: The Group
KT Sullivan
KT Sullivan, Julie Reyburn, Jeff Harnar
Amra-Faye Wright, Natalie Douglas, Karen Oberlin
Shana Farr, Tony DeSare, KT Sullivan and winner Jeff Harnar

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