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Donald Smith, Executive Director and Founder of The Mabel Mercer Foundation**, is hands down history’s most passionate, indefatigable activist in support of The Great American Songbook. Smith has participated in a dozen aspects of the field over fifty incredibly colorful years. He is beloved for encouragement, advice, and generosity by performers ranging from the now iconic Andrea Marcovici, Steve Ross, and Michael Feinstein to a roster too long to list.
Opening Night at Urban Stages Winter Rhythms concert series to benefit the theater’s outreach program offering underserved communities free, professional quality theater and arts education opportunities was a gala tribute to Donald Smith.
Hosted by vocalist and comedian Klea Blackhurst whose lively, brassy, well written repartee kept the evening flowing, one performer after another offered both entertainment and warm, personal stories about their mentor conceivably squirming in his front row seat.
KT Sullivan opened the festivities with her raised-eyebrow rendition of “When Your Lover Says Goodbye,” and the effective, emotionally dark, “Coco,” both from the musical of the same name by Andre Previn and Alan Jay Lerner. It was the nuanced performance of a consummate pro, in turn, wry and jarring. Sullivan has participated in every Cabaret Convention since discovered by Smith in The Songs of Bart Howard at Jan Wallman’s in the 1980s.
Twenty year-old Nicolas King, whose presence demonstrated Smith’s interest in the next generation, followed with what’s becoming a signature medley of “I Won’t Grow Up” from Peter Pan (Mark Charlap/Carolyn Leigh) and “I’ve Got No Strings” (Leigh Harline/Ned Washington) from Pinocchio. His stage presence was confident, his voice clear and strong, the jazzy arrangement at odds with the innocent lyrics.
Karen Oberlin remembered participating in her first Cabaret Convention 10 years ago, just after the Twin Towers fell. At that show, Actress Judy Campbell, often described as Noel Coward’s muse, performed “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square” (Eric Maschwitz/ Manning Sherwin) which had made her a star in 1940. Alluding to the exposure that comes from association to Smith and the foundation, Oberlin said watching Campbell “changed me forever.” One can imagine the effectiveness of the 1939 lyric delivered in 2001 by someone who lived through the Blitz. Perched gracefully on a stool, the singer offered her own lilting and dramatic interpretation. She has a way of evocatively half whispering, half singing phrases that move her and an appealing, always elegant bearing. Piano accompaniment was lovely.
The otherwise funny Georga Osborne teared up as she thanked Smith for always treating her “as if I were a star.” Having toured the U.S. and Japan in The Sound of Music, she presented her “entire Sound of Music repertoire” singing the role of Sister Sophia while silently reacting to the musical parts where other nuns would’ve come in. I’d lay odds there wasn’t a seasoned audience member who didn’t know most of the missing lyrics. It was a clever idea and ably vocalized.
T. Oliver Reid, who met Smith about 15 months ago after winning the 2010 Metrostar Competition, spoke warmly of wide ranging and enlightening conversations they’ve shared. Despite much advice from others, Smith remains the only person Reid considers his mentor. A rendition of Noel Coward’s “I Travel Alone” was minimal and pristine, the less is more approach of great benefit to his deft performance.
Jennifer Sheehan related an anecdote about a much younger Smith who, having been gifted with an opera ticket to the Met, got into animated conversation with the ladies by his side during which he enthused about a particular opera book. “You’ve made an old authoress really happy, young man,” one said as they exited. (What are the odds?) “You’re a true artist in your own right,” Sheehan told Smith, “and for that I thank you, young man.” The tribute was followed by an equally graceful version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Our Love is Here to Stay.” Sheehan moves like a dancer, focuses on her audience, and embodies the lyric.
The very personable Valerie Lemon listed “top five reasons” she loves Donald Smith beginning with his being just as happy with a peanut butter sandwich as in The Oyster Bar and ending with gratitude for his enriching her life. “Every time I see you, this is what I want to say…” lead into “With a Song in My Heart” (Rodgers & Hart). Lemon’s lovely contralto voice sailed on the rolling piano arrangement as if in a regatta, her arms at her sides until reaching out at the finish to her friend. It was touching.
Jeff Harnar introduced himself as a “filmoholic” referring to Smith as his prime resource for all information cinematic. “Donald remembers when movies were 11 cents.” “They were a nickel in Omaha,” called out 87 year-old Julie Wilson from the audience. “How are ya, Julie?” Blackhurst responded. “’Still alive,” Wilson shot back to applause.
In 1985, when Harnar was a room service waiter at The Loews Regency, he found a glossy promo photo of Michael Feinstein on an elevator floor. “At the bottom it said Donald Smith Productions.” The aspiring entertainer started inviting Smith to everything he did. One evening, the young man found him waiting outside a stage door. “May I make a suggestion?” asked Smith. You can imagine Harnar’s intake of breath. “Don’t ever wear that jacket again,” was the undoubtedly sound advice. And Harnar never did.
A medley of “If I Had a Talking Picture of You” (B. G. De Sylva & Lew Brown/Ray Henderson) and “You Oughta Be in Pictures” (Dana Suesse/ Edward Heyman) followed the story. It was charming, jaunty, and romantic. Harnar is terrific with phrasing.
Colleen McHugh thanked the honoree for “listening, talking to me, trusting me and encouraging me to be myself.” Her Cabaret Convention debut in 2001 was such a positive experience the singer relocated to New York from Chicago. “The first year there were presents under the tree from my parents and one from Donald. He’s the reason I came and the reason I stayed.” Following an amusing description of Smith’s engineering helpful connections at parties, she dedicated her number “to the eight year-old Donald in all of us.” It was Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York” beginning with gentle, steady vibrato, rising to infectious insistence, ending with passion.
“I believe with all my heart there is no statute of limitation on gratitude,” Klea Blackhurst said prefacing her musical contribution with a verbatim thank you note once received from Smith. It was easy to hear his voice in her inflection. Though admitting “every great thing I do leads back to the show I did celebrating Ethel Merman,” Blackhurst chose not to sing a Merman hit but instead “a Mary Martin flop…which says what I want to say: We are going to be all right.” It was, of course, an allusion to the cabaret community and its struggle to survive, spread the word, and grow stronger.
The song was “Dancing in the Streets” from the 1943 Vernon Duke/ Howard Dietz musical of the same name which closed out of town in Boston. “We all will be/dancing in the streets/dubba dubba, ding ding…Bring in joy again…” And it was-joyful; big, bright, open throttle, sung with craft and a helluva voice.
Artistic Director, Frances Hill then presented Donald Smith with the Urban Stages’ Luminary Award to much applause.
“I have no problem with performers like Lady Gaga and Nine Inch Nails,” began Smith, “what bothers me is this music we love was being pushed out by kids who don’t even know who the Gershwins are. There was nothing stuffy or grand damish about Mabel…she touched generations of people.” A few priceless anecdotes about the dame herself closed the formal part of the evening, opening it to champagne, hors d’oeuvres, memories, and the warmest wishes this side of the equator. It was the first time the honoree had been out and about since a recent operation. Hearts smiled at the sight of him.
**Established in 1985; Producer of Cabaret Mondays, Cruises and annual Conventions with plans to establish a bricks and mortar center providing a permanent home for education, performance and related activities. www.mabelmercer.org
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Top photo, left to right, back row: Peter Napolitano, Jeff Harnar, Georga Osborne, Valerie Lemon, Colleen McHugh, Karen Oberlin, Bill Ziffiro, Nicolas King.
Bottom row, left to right: T. Oliver Reid, Donald Smith, Klea Blackhurst, Jennifer Sheehan
Musical Director and Pianist Bill Zeffiro
Coordinated by Peter Napolitano
Artistic Director Frances Hill