Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
At the culmination of NYC Pride week, four 2017 MAC Award nominated vocalists: Celia Berk, Sally Darling, Josephine Sanges, Lisa Viggiano and the year’s winner, Meg Flather, gathered at Don’t Tell Mama to present songs that reflected the times and title theme. Mutual admiration was pronounced. The concert benefited Trinity place Shelter LGBTQ Youth Programs.
Effectively opening off stage with Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run”, each vocalist introduced the next in a medley of songs rife with hopeful anticipation. (Except for the Gershwins’ “By Strauss.”) The room’s collective mood seemed to swell.
Josephine Sanges; Sally Darling
Josephine Sanges’ waltzy “Pure Imagination” (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley) was joyfully sincere. Phrasing emerged like longlined skating. Even scat glided…twirled and giggled. An understated, utterly sympathetic “Take Me to The World” showed a different aspect of the vocalist’s interpretive talent. (Stephen Sondheim’s Evening Primrose) Hands at her sides, looking into our eyes, Sanges reached the audience. In complete contrast, John M. Cook’s original, unexpected arrangement of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” (Harold Arlen/ E.Y. Yip Harburg) …Oh we oh, huh oh oh…with snippets of other songs from The Wizard of Oz, brought out the jazz baby in full flower.
Sally Darling offered Noel Coward’s “20th Century Blues” in apt, deadpan tandem with “Strange Days” (Amanda McBroom and Michele Brourman.) Darling is all vibrato, enunciating like an actress. …If you don’t like where we’re going/Honey, grab an oar and row…she sang. Right on. Kander & Ebb’s “What Would You Do?” and Sondheim’s awkward “Ah, But Underneath” were committed but confined-the performer shut out her audience.
Celia Berk; Meg Flather
Don Tucker’s very funny “French Song” was enacted by Meg Flather with flair. To hear the wry, ersatz French ride that lovely voice was a study in successful opposites. “Hush, Hush Hush”, a delicate song I found obscure out of context and “If” (Paula Cole/David Gates), riding rapid, staccato piano in opposition to lyrics followed. Flather’s own, MAC Winning number “Hold On Tight” (additional music John Mettam) bubbled over with good advice…Hold on tight/Breathe it in/Clear the mind of tomorrow…Sentiments were savored; octaves seamlessly shifted like tickling. Warmth flowed. With this last song, Flather looked back at her fans.
Despite a cold that added Lauren Bacall coloring to vocals, Celia Berk gave fine performances utilizing expressive parlando, innate skill with phrasing, and unabashed accessibility to the audience. Berk sang affectionate, well rendered geography songs with minimal, selective gestures. Her version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sand”, a highlight, was like watching musical monologue- eloquent, nuanced, and palpably fostered by an appealing ssss.
Lisa Viggiano swung two American Songbook numbers, after which she shifted gears to offer Tim Di Pasqua’s “Three’s A Charm”, written as outreach to GLBT’s anti-bullying campaign. The song was one of that were two simple, stirring, and emphatically on target. ….One-feeling lighter/Two-getting brighter/Three-feeling better…Viggiano sang wholeheartedly in the first verse. The audience provided vocal counting the second lilting time around. It felt like a benignly lead mantra.
The second of these heady numbers, performed by the company, was Ann Hampton Callaway/Michele Brourman’s “Love and Let Love,” …No one tells the sun not to shine/Or tells a flower not to grow…Trust the hand that made us/Just the way we are…Five voices melodically rose in moving support of brother/sisterhood that should’ve been piped over Times Square.
In my opinion, too many numbers did not fulfill the show’s stated intention. Though these were no less enjoyable, a premise had been set. Overall, the concert was entertaining and sometimes inspiring. Jeff Harnar’s unfussy, evocative Direction added craft and style.
This should be an annual event.
Opening Photo: Left to right Celia Berk, Josephine Sanges, Sally Darling, Meg Flather, Lisa Viggiano
Together 2017 MAC Cabaret Award-Nominated Vocalists A Benefit for Trinity place Shelter LGBTQ Youth Programs With thanks to Sidney Meyer for donating the venue Musical Director John M. Cook Director- Jeff Harnar Don’t Tell Mama June 25, 2017 Venue Calendar
The Mabel Mercer Foundation’s annual summer concert celebrated composer Howard Dietz (1896-1983) and lyricist Arthur Schwartz (1900-1984), while including an unrelated roster of other writers. Relative newcomers and established artists presented jazz, cabaret, and musical theater interpretations out of what we call The American Songbook, which, despite suggestions to the contrary, continues to endure and evolve.
Arthur Schwartz was pressured into law by his family and admitted to the bar in 1924. By 1928, having moonlighted for years, he’d closed his office in favor of songwriting. Howard Dietz moved from advertising to MGM’s Vice President in Charge of Publicity, originating their iconic, roaring lion as well as the slogan “More Stars than there are in Heaven.” The composer wrote continuously throughout his alternate career. Collaboration began with The Little Show, a revue starring Libby Holman, Clifton Webb, and Fred Allen. The rest is history.
Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz (Wikipedia)
In her best, wide-eyed, faux innocent persona, the Foundation’s Artistic Director, KT Sullivan, opened with “Confession” from The Band Wagon.
Frank Dain’s version of “Penny” was utterly enchanting. (Songwriter/musical director/musician/board member and lifetime card-carrying, cabaret supporter Larry Elow.) Dain shimmered with ardor. The unfussy ballad goes straight to the heart with timeless appeal. Kathleen Landis – lovely arrangement, graceful piano.
“Make the Man Love Me” (Arthur Schwartz/Dorothy Fields) emerged genuinely sweet as rendered by Lauren Stanford. During an instrumental, the vocalist seemed to continue internal dialogue holding us captive. Piano-Jon Weber.
Frank Dain; Lauren Stanford
The Inimitable Sidney Meyer, who has the most articulate shoulders in the business, sang “Rainy Night in Rio” (Arthur Schwartz/Leo Robin) with iconoclastic, deadpan phrasing, impish facial expression, and the rousing help of the band’s “Ai Yi Yi!” chorus. A photographic finish. Piano-Jon Weber.
Danny Bacher and Alexis Cole, usually solo performers, symbiotically joined for three numbers with Cole at the piano and Bacher on soprano sax as well as duet vocals. “I’ll Buy You a Star” (Arthur Schwartz/Dorothy Fields) swung in with the ease of a languid hammock. “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” was insouciant rather than wistful. “You and The Night and The Music” showcased the artists’ extraordinary ability with scat. Someone find these people a supper club!
Alexis Cole; Danny Bacher
In his first appearance with The Mabel Mercer Foundation, Darius de Haas displayed well honed acting skill with the theatrical prose/poem “Trotsky in Mexico” (Renee Rosnes/David Hajdu). An original “Shine On Your Shoes” arrived like a slow-motion Fred Astaire turn, every word savored as if preaching gospel. Todd Firth-splendid, textural piano and arrangements.
John Wallowich’s “I Live Alone Again” was performed with rare restraint by Mark Nadler as stipulated by its author – first verse a lament, second in gleeful relief. The artist sold both with credibility. “By Myself,” adroitly including Jack Buchanan’s original spoken word, was a crie de coeur rather than familiar resignation. And, oh, the piano!
Mark Nadler; Marta Sanders
To my mind, this evening’s highlight was veteran Marta Sanders whose inhabiting lyrics, flexible timbre, and arch humor created a show unto itself. The gypsy “Come A-Wandering With Me”(Mark Nadler-emphatic piano), cue atmospheric stage smoke, was followed with equal fervor by John Wallowich’s amusing “Warsaw,” (John McMahon-piano), an impeccably timed in-one, deftly utilizing a babushka.
Sullivan then closed with “Lovely,” for which she played matchmaker to a forgotten composition by Howard Dietz and Bart Howard’s lyrics, and, perhaps the best known Dietz and Schwartz song, “Dancing in The Dark” materializing a chanteusey, soprano waltz. Jon Weber-piano.
Also featuring: exuberant Seth Sikes; Celia Berk’s poignant “Something to Remember You By” rife with implicit “please”; an underwhelming Margi Gianquinto; the polished Sue Matsuki with a clever, if seemingly out of place number on which she collaborated; a bright, sweetheart rendition of “Rhode Island is Famous for You” from Karen Oberlin; Laurie Krauz and Daryl Kojak’s extremely original interpretation of “Alone Together” with massaged vocal, wordless singing, and Valkyrie delivery; the sincere Gary Crawford; and Mauricio Bustamante’s rendition of John Wallowich’s “Bruce.”
Musicianship was uniformly superb.
Performance Photos by Seth Cashman
Opening: Jon Weber; KT Sullivan
Songs by other than Dietz and Schwartz are noted.
Recommended Reading: Dancing in The Dark by Howard Dietz (published in 1974)
That’s Entertainment: Dietz & Schwartz and Friends Music Director: Jon Weber Saadi Zain-bass, Sean Harkness-guitar, David Silliman-drums. Weill Hall June 20, 2017 The Mabel Mercer Foundation
In October 1989, Donald Smith’s four year-old Mabel Mercer Foundation held its first annual New York Cabaret Convention. The New York Times headline read: Cabaret Convention Ponders a Disturbing Future. “Is there a place for cabaret in today’s age of mass entertainment? That is the question being pondered this week on the stage of Town Hall…” Stephen Holden. According to Holden’s 1991 coverage of the event, its debut “…attracted an audience of 6,000, and in its wake, Smith said, he received 900 letters about the problems facing the cabaret industry.”
Let us breathe a deep communal sigh and persevere with a modicum of rosey tint on our glasses. Print media, except for the venerable Cabaret Scenes, may refuse to acknowledge us except for an occasional blurb, but the art form continues to exist and evolve.
Small rooms and piano bars pop up replacing storied nightclubs as venues in which performers showcase talent. 54Below has become (Michael) Feinstein’s/54Below, extending programming and attracting fresh audiences. The 92 St. Y’s robust Lyrics and Lyricists series goes on with the organization’s roster adding Harvey Granat’s delightful midday salutes to iconic composers and lyricists. Fairly new on the scene, Pangea delivers striking alternative cabaret. Gianni Valenti (of Birdland) promises an additional locale in 2017. PBS has taken to the front line presenting cabaret on television. The Mabel Mercer Foundation is in its 31st year.
The 27th Annual New York Cabaret Convention runs from Tuesday, October 18 through Friday, October 21 at Jazz At Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. Artists this year range from 12 year-old Zoe Gellman and 15 year-old Joie Bianco (who KT Sullivan heard this year at Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook Academy Competition – she didn’t win…this time) to the eternally youthful Marilyn Maye. Sullivan is encouraged by all the young aspiring vocalists she’s met and has faith in the art form. “As long as people gather in small places, sometimes with a drink, they’ll want to sit and listen to musical stories- unlike rock and pop and rap.” Artistic Director KT Sullivan
Tuesday October 18: Opening Night Gala – Hosted by KT Sullivan
Featuring, in part, Christina Bianco, Allan Harris, Carole J. Buffard, Eric Yves Garcia
“Opening night is always different because I like to spotlight more new talent and more kinds of music and sounds. There are several artists who have never performed at a Convention. We’ll hear American Songbook, Weimar, Jazz, likely Noel Coward, contemporary writers, and Broadway. We’re even hoping to have a trio song from Hamilton. I try to see every performer live, though I chose one this season on the basis of a terrific video, and then advise on material presented in our show.” KT Sullivan
Wednesday October 19: Saluting Stephen Sondheim- Hosted by Andrea Marcovicci and Jeff Harnar
Featuring, in part, Karen Akers, Sidney Meyer, Steve Ross, Jennifer Sheehan, Celia Berk
“Since its inception the Cabaret Convention has been a chance for performers to shine, and what better way to feature their talents than with the wit and wisdom of Stephen Sondheim! The repertoire is vast and sparkling with humor and tenderness, more than enough familiar songs to please our audience, yet many lesser known songs have found their way into the evening to keep them on their toes. I particularly look forward to my duets with Jeff Harnar which have been the highlight of my hosting duties, so once again we’ll be “Side By Side.” Andrea Marcovicci
“Three years ago I was a performer who felt too intimidated by the Sondheim catalogue to even consider his songs for my performance repertoire. KT Sullivan changed all that when she invited me to do a two-hander Sondheim show with her. As a performer who has always felt most at home in the musical skin of Cole Porter, now in my mid-fifties, I find performing Sondheim’s lyrics gifts me with a similar musical intelligence and wit as Porter’s, but with an unmistakably 21st Century sensibility. For our fifth time out as co-hosts, Andrea Marcovicci and I will present a Sondheim songbook. No hesitation on my part saying yes to that. Jeff Harnar
Thursday October 20: Saluting Sylvia Syms – Hosted by Rex Reed
Featuring, in part, Joyce Breach, Ann Hampton Callaway, Nicolas King, Billy Stritch
Frank Sinatra, her friend and mentor for five decades, called Sylvia Syms “the world’s greatest saloon singer.” The vocalist was perhaps best known for intimacy, unabashed honesty, and the ability to sing a variety of styles while maintaining her signature voice. “When you perform it’s a one-to-one love affair with the people out there. That’s how it has to be.” Sylvia Syms
“Sylvia Syms was beloved by everyone with sensitivity, taste and even the most basic knowledge of the art of the Great American Songbook, so a tribute to her warmth, savvy, sophisticated understanding of a lyric, and the beauty of her deep, throaty voice is long overdue. In addition to her exalted place in the history of song, she was a close personal friend who taught and informed me, enriched my life, and made me laugh, so I convinced myself I was the right person to lead the parade in celebrating her life and extraordinary career. I hope what we have some up with will best represent the supreme legacy of the artistry of Sylvia Syms.” Rex Reed
Friday October 21: Saluting Sheldon Harnick, Charles Strouse – Hosted by Klea Blackhurst
Featuring, in part, Corrina Sowers Adler, Liam Forde, Shana Farr, Todd Murray, Scott Coulter
Sheldon Harnick, author of such as Fiorello and She Loves Me, is having a banner year of national and local recognition with multiple musical revivals in New York. He received the 2016 Drama League Award for Distinguished Achievement in Musical Theater, as well as the 2016 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. Composer Charles Strouse gave us such musicals as Golden Boy, the eternal Annie, Bye Bye Birdie, and Rags. “I never said to myself, How will I ever top this? …I mean, I like things to be a success, but the main thing is to keep working.” Charles Strouse
“As a little girl of four or five, I’d romp around the house belting out up-tempos from Fiddler On the Roof and Applause, Annie and The Apple Tree, among many others from our household collection. Flash forward to the preparations for the final night of the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 27th New York Cabaret Convention. The focus is on Sheldon Harnick and Charles Strouse, titans from my ongoing record collection. The joy Sheldon’s words have brought into my life cannot be measured or fully understood. To be hosting the event is a thrill and a huge honor.” Klea Blackhurst
This year, the Convention will be preceded by several special events: Will Friedwald presents Cabaret Clips – rarely seen video and film of iconic performers – where does he find these?! at The Laurie Beechman Theater on October 15, 2016
On October 16th, also at the Laurie Beechman, one can be present at the live DVD recording of a show (at last!) by beloved performer (and booker) Sidney Myer “a lovable madcap singer/comedian with an audacious performing style who can touch your heart at the same time.” Steve Ross. People are already clamoring for tickets as the exquisitely wry Meyer performs so rarely these days.
On Sunday October 23rd following the convention, Urban Stages will reprise a special concert encore of the critically acclaimed Mabel Madness about the life of the Foundation’s legendary namesake written and performed by Tony Award Winner Trazana Beverly.
Coming Up: November 2016 KT Sullivan and Natalie Douglas accompanied by pianist Jon Weber will judge a Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Competition in Durango, Colorado for aspiring young singers.
April 2017 The Cabaret Convention returns to Chicago for its fourth gala run in that city after a hiatus. Watch for details on the Foundation web site.
Opening: Jeff Harnar & Andrea Marcovicci – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
KT Sullivan and Rick Meadows at Town Hall – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff KT Sullivan – Photo by Maryann Lopinto Jeff Harnar & Andrea Marcovicci – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff Rex Reed – Photo courtesy of Mr. Reed Klea Blackhurst- Photo by Bill Westmoreland
On April 3 the much acclaimed Celia Berk performed, again at the Metropolitan Room, to introduce her new CD (released April 1), Manhattan Serenade. Berk, winner of a 2015 Bistro Award, a 2015 MAC Award for female debut and the 2015 Margaret Whiting Award (among others), was also recognized for her debut album You Can’t Rush Spring – which was nominated for MAC’s 2015 LaMott Friedman Award for Best Recording. There are reasons to prefer a live show to a recording; and reasons to prefer a recording to a live show. What one gains in polish may be lost in spontaneity. Gains in precision may be traded for a loss in electricity and warmth. Each has merits. This note is less a review than a contrast of the experiences.
I first heard Berk in live performance in 2015 and was immediately won over: see WAT Review. I subsequently heard the corresponding (debut) CD: You Can’t Rush Spring. I was blown away by both the material and the delivery. But a single point in the firmament, however lofty, gives no clue as to a trajectory so I awaited this second recording with a sense of anticipation. Remarkably, both CDs grow in appeal with repeated hearings as fresh nuances come to light. And both CDs reflect a scholarly curiosity (credited collectively to Alex Rybeck and Berk) for unearthing intriguing, little known gems. Manhattan Serenade is pursued with complete commitment by all involved. The liner notes (mostly by Berk and Rybeck) are personal, informative and, to me, an integral part of the CD. The musicality and deep experience of the creative team at work on Manhattan Serenade is so apparent that I am loath to second guess them – although that is in part the reviewers’ role. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, for pure self-indulgence I prefer the first CD. Having said that, Manhattan Serenade is arguably the more imposing work – for the variety of styles, the luminary supporting players and the novelty of the constituent works.
Berk is in her sophomore year of professional cabaret work but has been a student of the musical arts for years. As was apparent from her earlier performances and debut CD, this is a woman of remarkable emotive fluency – capable of putting a smile, a smirk or a wink into the last third of a syllable, and equipped with a rich alto instrument under intelligent and precise control. Her classical training is suggested by her vocal quality but rarely betrayed by operatic nuance – and that only in the service of the music or humor. And unlike so much contemporary music, every lyric is articulated and given meaning by an experienced sensibility. But there is little melodrama here; the fireworks are largely cerebral. To quote Sondheim, “It’s a quiet thing”.
Alex Rybeck is Berk’s musical director, and the arranger of every track on the CD, and the CD is as much his product as Berk’s. To my ears, a couple of tracks are stylistic outliers (notably Goffin and King’s “Up On The Roof” and Kander and Ebb’s “All I Need”), but they add welcome texture. And they do adhere to the theme of the CD (termed by Berk a “Valentine to New York”). Despite the theme, there is no narrative arc – so anything goes provided only that it has a colorable Manhattan connection. As such the CD is, indeed, a “connoisseur’s compilation” (David Zippel) of exotic tidbits where many might prefer, for a listening experience, a more coherent unity. But if you know Berk’s work to date, you know that is not how she cooks – and you will not leave the table hungry after enjoying this menu degustation.
The recordings include only four pieces (of 13) with which I was familiar – notwithstanding the notable pedigrees of the creators: David Heneker; Kander and Ebb; Goffin and King; Bacharach and Simon; Irving Berlin; Weill and Hughes; Weill and Coslow, Rupert Holmes, Whiting, Arnold and Kahn; Rodgers and Hart; Alter and Adamson, Scibetta and Reach; Coleman and Zippel. That, in itself, is entertaining, edifying and worth the price of admission for those who seek to deepen their musical experience.
The recording opens with an apt intro for its theme: David Honeker’s “Manhattan Hometown” (from the 1983 musical Peg – which could well play behind the credits of Woody Allen’s next NYC movie), and closes with a similarly apt (and beautifully and simply arranged) “A Tree in the Park” by Rodgers and Hart. Between the two, musical styles and content run a gamut (and a bit amok). “All I Need” has a Latin rhythm with bongos; “Up On the Roof” has flute and guitar accompaniment to a soft jazz/waltz tempo; “Seconds,” written for the unmade film version of Promises, Promises has a recognizably Bacharach-ian Broadway orchestration; Berlin’s “Manhattan Madness”(featuring Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks Combo Orchestra) evokes the “big band” thirties; Weill’s “Lonely House” is rendered as a “jazz aria”; backup vocals color some arrangements. The musical choices are intriguing and usually surprising. To the aficionado, each piece may be a gem. Nonetheless, when mounted together, they do not make a tiara – except perhaps in the East Village. And if that is your sensibility, this recording is also for you.
The Met Room performance which intro’ed the CD presented a somewhat different face. The notorious warmth of the performer, and the tiniest bit of residual nervousness in delivering patter, come through in the intimate space and add depth to the performance, as did the tangible affection in the room for Berk herself. But the voice, in person as well as on the recording, remains rich, precisely tailored and with an unusual and appealing timbre.
The show is directed by Jeff Harnar and accompanied by the ephemeral “Manhattan Serenade Symphonette” comprising Dan Gross on percussion, Dan Willis on woodwinds, Jered Egan on bass and Alex Rybeck at the piano, doing yeoman work to replicate the various tonalities on the CD. The encore, alone, Coleman and Zippel’s “The Broadway Song,”wassung to the CD music track in order to include the full instrumental richness captured there and a star-studded vocal backup (Josh Dixen, Kristoffer Lowe and director Jeff Harnar).
The live performance included a few numbers not included on the CD. One, “The Party Upstairs” (Ronny Whyte and Francesca Blumenthal), was a particularly appropriate New York number focusing, as it does, on the intrusive entertainments of the upstairs neighbor – from which the singer is excluded. And like “Seconds” (on the CD but not in the live show) it provides a poignant ending by illuminating an unexpected alternate meaning of the lyric. (I would have liked to have that on the recording.) Also not on the CD but in the air were “Such a Wonderful Town” (Whiting and Arnold) reprising a comedic number from Berk’s Met Room debut and the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You.”
The CD lacks the patter that makes a live performance personal and, often, funny. From the stage, Berk offered New York-centric anecdotes including the tale of her having arrived in NYC with her theater degree and immediately getting a job in a bakery. There she was privileged to serve Betty Comden a choice selection of rugelach accompanied by a (presumably sotto voce) rendition of “Bake someone happy, bake just one someone happy . . . and I can cook too!” And there is no doubt that Berk can cook, and will – each Sunday in April at the Metropolitan Room.