The Second Annual Adela & Larry Elow American Songbook Competition


Adela and Larry Elow, long banner carrying supporters of American Songbook in the put-your-money-where-your-heart-is vein, have generously endowed The Mabel Mercer Foundation with a $50,000 fund created specifically to encourage teenagers to learn and perform The Great American Songbook over the next decade.

As defined by Larry, this means “material composed between the years 1900-1970 – songs that formed the essence of America’s three great interrelated musical gifts to the world: Jazz, Popular Song, and the Modern Musical Theater.” “These songs expressed the ethos, character and values of what came to be known as The Greatest Generation,” Adela adds. “’Romance, grace, sensitivity, idealism and all those other life attitudes that we took for granted.”

The competition, judged by experts in the field, awards $2,500 first prize with an invitation to appear at the annual Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention October 28-31 at Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center. A $1,500 second prize and $1,000 third prize are bestowed to further burgeoning dreams.

Adela and Larry Elow; KT Sullivan

March 9, 2019

Today twelve aspiring performers from The Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, the professional Performing Arts School, Talent Unlimited High School, and Frank Sinatra School of The Arts, compete at hospitable Laurie Beechman Theater. KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, welcomes us with a lilting “Songs Were Made to Sing While We’re Young.” (Alec Wilder/ Morty Palitz)

Students are all sizes and nationalities. There are young women dressed and made-up and those who fade to white under stage lights, unaccountably aware of how they look. Ladies also don’t consider the effect of extremely short dresses on a raised stage. Both men are pressed and kempt.

Friends and family look on with unconditional pride. Some vocalists stride on stage with purpose, others are shy. A few move across the stage while performing, though almost no one seems comfortable with this yet. In an effort not to gesture too much, many seem stiff. At this point, focus is on the song.

Only two (both last year’s winners) obey a major precept of cabaret – look at and connect with your audience; we’re on your side. There’s plenty of raw talent, however.

Anais Reno

First prize goes to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School student Anais Reno who sings Duke Ellington’s “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues.” How a girl this age seems to “get” the material/genre is a wonder. Beginning a capella (vocal is assured), Reno sings “ain’t” as if it comes naturally, deeply exhaling prideful melancholy. Notes slip/slide with skill. Facial expression is apt. There’s even a smidge of scat. I’m very curious to hear/see this artist at October’s Cabaret Convention.

Second prize is awarded to Professional Performing Arts School student Jessica Ball whose poise and appearance are ready for the spotlight. Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You” arrives besotted, we believe every word. Pausing just before the last lyric is especially effective. Ball sings “my” in four syllables before “love” imbuing it with palpable hope. Lovely vocal emerges in thrall. This contestant gazes for just a moment at audience up front – making us crave more.

Jessica Ball

Third prize winner, Thomas Hogan, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, offers Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” replete with a few dance steps. The young man appears aware of what he’s singing – not axiomatic – and performs with expression. A questionable arrangement makes the song too fast, but Hogan handles it. Appealing presence.

Thomas Hogan

As rendered by Annie Ross, “Falling in Love with Love” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart) reveals splendid control and a lovely, particularly convincing vocal.

Julia Parasram’s “Beyond the Sea” (Jack Lawrence/ Jacques Trenet) evidences a fine voice, natural swing cadence, deft gestures, and her own modest stamp on iconic material.

Annie Ross; Julia Parasram

Additional performers: Gabriela Veciana (nice vibrato), Hannah Bucher (attractive, easy style), Diana Caba (sincere but much too big), Harriet Smith (good inflection, but way too big for the material), Grace Gammins (engaging cottony vocal), Kaitlyn Dieppa (with a much too sophisticated song), Dwany Guzman (full of feeling – too much hands.) By big, I mean swelled volume.

While the judges conferred, we were entertained by last year’s award recipients.

Christina Jimenez, who took home first prize, is now at NYU Tisch School for The Arts. The talented artist will be among those on stage at The Mabel Mercer Foundation’s May 21 Jerome Kern show.  A buoyant “Cockeyed Optimist” with just right phrasing is followed by a “The Gentleman Is a Dope” (both Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein) in fine, open, sailing alto. “Someone to Watch Over Me” (Ira Gershwin/George Gershwin) is, alas, too big for its lyrics. Jimenez is clearly an actress which will serve her well in cabaret and theater.

Christina Jimenez, Hannah Jane Peterson, Naomi Steele

Second prize winner, Hannah Jane Peterson, currently in a workshop of Sister Act, has already debuted her own evening at the Laurie Beechman. “It’s a Good Day” (Peggy Lee/ Dave Barbour) arrives infectiously happy. The performer follows with spot-on vocal and physical sass required to showcase “Hit Me with A Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce” (Duke Ellington) Peterson uses her entire stage, moves beautifully, and connects. A master class for others.

Third prize winner Naomi Autumn Steele, in her second semester at SUNY Purchase, delivered an up-tempo, Ella Fitzgerald style “A Tisket A Tasket” without much sense of swing. She has a voice, but the only thing that moves are her eyebrows. A lost opportunity for audience involvement.

Another year, another roster of budding talent discovering American Songbook.

2019 Judges: legend Sandy Stewart, master teacher and jazz singer Natalie Douglas, award winning cabaret performer and director Jeff Harnar, Broadway musical director and arranger Mark Hummel, Time Out New York critic Adam Feldman, and music author/journalist Will Friedwald.

Pianists: Jon Weber, John Prestianni, Arri Simon

Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Opening: Thomas Hogan, Jessica Ball, Anais Reno, KT Sullivan, Adela Elow, Larry Elow

The Second Annual Adela & Larry Elow American Songbook Competition
Laurie Beechman Theater at The West Bank Café

About Alix Cohen (1689 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.