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.
And so they gather once again like migrated birds instinctively drawn to the annual Cabaret Convention, the smorgasbord of an art still beloved. From all over the country, hotels are booked, other shows ticketed. Some out of town attendees meet only once a year on this occasion, while local denizens take the opportunity to greet favorite artists and compare opinions. The 27th edition of the celebratory event boasts a 15 year-old newcomer as well as performers from London and Australia. Buzz is palpable.
KT Sullivan by Maryann Lopinto
Artistic Director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation/Host, KT Sullivan, opens the show with a high, light version of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.” Tonight, she might be singing about the audience or the extraordinary fascinator perched on her chignon. (Piano-Jon Weber, Bass- Steve Doyle, Drums- Rob Garcia)
Next we’re treated to Robert Creighton who must run to the theater where he’s starring in his own co-written musical Cagney. “No matter what your political leanings, sometimes it’s hard to see how great this country is.” Creighton performs George M. Cohan’s “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” unfathomably without dancing. Renditions are easy, slightly nasal, with apt Cagney inflection. (MD/piano- Matt Perri)
Highlights of the evening follow.
Josephine Bianco; Kelly McDonald by Maryann Lopinto
A finalist at both the Metrostar and Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Academy competitions, 15 year-old Josephine Bianco offers Jule Styne/Bob Merrill’s “People” displaying all the right instincts. The performer takes her time, looks into audience faces, and imbues the number with both personal expression and subtle modulations. Someone to watch.
Burgeoning artist, Kelly McDonald, introduces one of the evening’s few contemporary numbers, “Latte Boy” (Marcy Heisler/ Zina Goldrich). Her vocal is lovely, character embodiment innocent and credible. Kudos to the appealing McDonald for taking a risk. (Piano on both-Jon Weber)
Stacy Sullivan; Natalie Douglas by Stephen Sorokoff
From new CD Stranger in a Dream, we hear Stacy Sullivan’s deft, airbrushed “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (Duke Ellington/Don George/Johnny Hodges/ Harry James) and a well rendered swing selection in which the vocalist shifts octaves like an aerialist (MD/piano-Jon Weber).
The surprising opening of Act II is a buoyant “Helpless” (Lin-Manuel Miranda from Hamilton) featuring Karen Oberlin, KT Sullivan, Natalie Douglas as Eliza and Jon Weber- rapping! (MD/piano-Jon Weber). Douglas is then palpably surprised by winning the Donald F. Smith Award endowed by Adela and Larry Elow. Her interpretation of Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” is beautifully understated. (MD/piano- Mark Hartman)
Vivian Reed and Dancers by Stephen Sorokoff
Broadway’s Vivian Reed unleashes “Sweet Georgia Brown” (Ben Bernie/Maceo Pinkard/Kenneth Casey) as a full production number replete with choreographed backup dancers and bebop scat followed by a gospel “Believe” (admirably without overshooting the mark), which visibly courses through her. (MD/Piano-William Foster McDaniel)
Kristoffer Lowe’s jaunty, tandem “A Quarter to Nine” (Harry Warren/Al Dubin) and “If You Feel Like Singing, Sing” segues from stylish to infectiously happy. Lowe is old school classy. Making his Convention debut, the immensely elegant, decidedly decadent Kim David Smith captivates in English and pristine German with renditions of “Illusions” and “Eine Kleine…” (Piano-Tracy Stark)
Kristoffer Lowe; Kim David Smith by Maryann Lopinto
Irving Berlin’s “It Only Happens When I Dance With You” is married to Amanda McBroom’s poignant “Dance” by Susan Winter who takes us with her on every emotional journey. Shimmering arrangement by MD/pianist Alex Rybeck. The reliably show-stopping Carole J. Bufford erupts into “St. James Infirmary” with powerful vocal from chest to throat, growl to howl, sinuous moves, and a command of the stage we rarely see. (Matt Baker-piano, Tom Hubbard-bass, Rob Garcia-drums, Charlie Coranics- superior Trumpet)
Maureen McGovern is appreciatively presented this year’s Mabel Mercer Award. The artist then sings two immensely original takes on numbers from The Wizard of Oz (Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg): a charming preface of “Optimistic Voices” (You’re out of the woods…) leads to an a capella and acoustic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” which one can only call indelible. Showcasing her range, McGovern then delivers an ardent, “Blues in the Night” (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer) with an entirely different voice. Wow. (MD/Piano-Jeff Harris)
Maureen McGovern by Stephen Sorokoff
Also featuring: Two Randy Newman songs from Karen Oberlin-one appealingly shadowy, the other, a dissonantly paired political ditty (Piano-Jon Weber); T. Oliver Reid’s bubbly “I’m Throwin’ a Ball Tonight” by Cole Porter (MD/Piano-Larry Yurman); A warm Fran Landesman/Alec Wilder number from Barbara Fasano who makes us empathize with every sentiment (Piano-Eric Comstock); Stephan Bednarczyk’s angry take on Noel Coward’s “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs. Worthington” which defangs implicit wit…
Jacob Storms, whose voice is like an articulated hum, chooses two iconic songs on which he unfortunately leaves no personal stamp. (Piano-Jon Weber) Eric Yves Garcia’s rendition of Cole Porter’s “I’m A Gigolo” emerges vocally forced instead of insouciant, though the artist is capable of the latter. It should be noted, to my knowledge, this is the first time superb performer Leslie Hutchenson,“Hutch,” has been mentioned on the Convention stage. If you don’t know his work, I highly recommend research.
Barbara Fasano; Matt Baker by Stephen Sorokoff
Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” is evocatively performed by Matt Baker including breathy vocal and arrangement that sounds like fine, 1950s jazz. (Bass-Endea Owens, Drums-Darrian Douglas) He’s less successful with an over long, dense interpretation of the theme from The Apartment (Charles Williams.) Crowd pleaser Christina Bianco safely repeats her Kander and Ebb “Cabaret” turn for the umpteenth time, imitating such as Julie Andrews and Judy Garland. The talented vocalist might consider moving on. (Piano-Jon Weber)
Thanks to Steve Doyle and Ron Hubbard, bassists, Rob Garcia-drums.
The evening ran a long 2 ½ hours, but offered many rewarding performances.
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
Entertainment for the 1958 Springfield High School Senior Prom (GO CHIPMUNKS!) was supposed to have been provided by the Crooning Crab Cakes from the boys glee club, but lead singer, Billy Ray Patton, was caught smoking and suspended. Stepping up at the last minute, in perfectly coordinated costumes, are “The Wonderful Marvelettes” whoops – The Marvelous Wonderettes.
The bestie girl group includes serious, mousy Missy (Christina Bianco), who has a major crush on their teacher Mr. Lee; irrepressibly ditsy, Suzy (Diana Degarmo), dating Ritchie Stephens who runs the lights; conceited Cindy Lou (Jenna Leigh Green) with aspirations towards Hollywood; and tomboy Betty Jean (Sally Schwab), furious that boyfriend Johnny is two-timing her with Cindy Lou. (Revenge sabotage is repeatedly attempted. Blowing bubbles at her rival is unfunny.)
After a buoyant opening salvo of “Sandman,” “Lollipop”: Lollipop, lollipop/Oh lolli lolli lolli…and “Sugartime”: Sugar in the mornin’/Sugar in the evenin’/Sugar at suppertime/Be my little sugar/And love me all the time… the prom’s theme, ‘Marvelous Dreams’, is announced with performances of “All I Have to Do Is Dream” and “Dream Lover.” Are you growing nostalgic? Whether you can mouth the lyrics or have always been curious, this is the show for you. Regardless of my caveats, it’s musically and visually entertaining.
Numbers are vocally well arranged (Music Direction-Benjamin Rauhala) and delightfully choreographed (Choreography – Alex Ringler.) Costumes including uber-petticoated dresses and disco attire (Bobby Pearce) –successful except for Missy’s 1958 glasses in 1968, and hyper-exaggerated wigs (Jennifer Mooney Bullock) -not so much, illuminate epochs.
Christina Bianco, Jenna Leigh Green, Sally Schwab, Diana Degarmo
Songs are almost seamlessly inserted to express the girl’s relationships i.e. Missy sings “Born Too Late,” Suzy dedicates “Stupid Cupid” to her boyfriend, and Betty Jean accuses Johnny with “Lipstick on Your Collar” to which Cindy Lou responds with “Lucky Lips.”
The girls also challenge one another for the title of Prom Queen with a brief, simultaneous talent competition. Though baton twirling and singing are plausible, silk scarf juggling and walking with a book on one’s head fall flat. These are trained theater professionals. Surely one could have tapped, and another attempted an instrument, with each being given a separate, frustrated minute before the buzzer goes off.
Upon entering the theater, we’re given pencils with which to mark Prom Queen ballots inserted in the program. The gimmick alas, is thrown away. When collected, our ballots are dropped and swept off stage by Suzy. These might’ve been tallied during successive numbers allowing the real winner to get a solo and the crown. Either way, without at least the pretense of counting, the audience feels gypped.
Act II, with a change in styling, music, and lives, opens on the class’s ten-year reunion. Eschewing Rock in favor of Pop and Motown is something of a lost opportunity. Though choices are both apt to the storyline and fun, many sound way too much like their predecessors.
Only Suzy, now suffering through an enormous pregnancy (in her mini dress), and Betty Jean, have stayed in touch. Both are married, Suzy to Ritchie with whom she’s going through a rough patch and Betty Jean to the still philandering Johnny. Missy is having a clandestine relationship later revealed, while Betty Lou, having returned to town tail between her legs, has loved and lost.
All this plays out with the young women reforming bonds, expressing themselves: “It’s In His Kiss” (the Shoop Shoop song), “Wedding Bell Blues,” “It’s My Party, I’ll Cry If I Want To” and supporting one another: “Respect” (R-E-S-P-E-C-T), one of the best numbers in the show, with whining Suzy coming into her own before our eyes. We close with “Thank You and Goodnight” and the promise to reconvene in 1978.
William Davis’s Scenic Design gives us a cheerful, raised stage platform hung with metallic streamers and a banner, mobile microphone stands, and an appropriately loaded buffet table.
My chief objection to this production is its over-the-top, camp interpretation by Directors Tommy D’Angora and Michael D’Angora. This is a sweet, funny piece with great music and movement. Here, in Act I, the often irritating girls act like eleven year-olds throwing tantrums instead of high school seniors. Remember, this is the same period as the musical Grease. Any comedy must be played straight to be funny. The D’Angoras have sacrificed implicit emotions for clumsy, metaphoric pratfalls. They apparently have no confidence in the writing. Act II is less objectionable.
Three of the four actress/vocalists hold their own with Sally Schwab the weak link. Ms. Schwab is neither amusing nor believable. This is partially, one assumes, due to direction. Though she provides able bass line in harmonies, solos are weak.
Christina Bianco (Missy) well known denizen of the cabaret circuit, offers both quirky characterization and pithy singing. Dana Degarmo (Suzy) should be tamped down in Act I, but is poignant and funny in Act II. Vocals are appealing. Jenna Leigh Green is interestingly allowed to act throughout, making Cindy Lou the most authentic of the group. Her vocals are also solid.
Originally written in 1999, The Marvelous Wonderettes reached Off Broadway in 2008. This is only the most recent local revival of a quiet juggernaut. According to the program, the show has had over 300 worldwide productions and has two sequels with a fourth on the way.
Photos by Michael D’Angora Opening: “Lollipop”: Sally Schwab, Jenna Leigh Green, Diana Degarmo, Christina Bianco
The Marvelous Wonderettes Written and Created by Roger Bean Directed by Tommy D’Angora and Michael D’Angora The Kirk Theatre 410 West 42nd Street