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.
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. The Foundation calls these young people “Mabel’s Babies”- in reference to namesake, the iconic (childless) Mabel Mercer.
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.” When the couple were respectively coming of age, Adela recalls, “…These songs expressed the ethos, character and values of what came to be known as The Greatest Generation: the romance, grace, sensitivity, idealism and all those other life attitudes that we took for granted.”
Larry tells me he had to be convinced of the enterprise by his more optimistic soul mate. Imagine what it must be like for those who have lived through (and loved ) eras when the milkman and debutantes were familiar with the same songs, when fans bought sheet music, families gathered around radios, couples went dancing, nightclubs and movie musicals proliferated.
Adela and Larry Elow
Put yourselves in the shoes of a man who became a songwriter and musician in order to immerse himself and contribute to the genre as he watched venues close, popularity/ awareness diminish… Imagine the frustration of talking to young people – especially performers – unfamiliar with Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Kern…who might never have heard the Songbook were it not for Paul McCartney or Rod Stewart. Fortunately, Larry Elow has the determined Adela to sway his counter intuitive reserve. One couldn’t imagine a more symbiotic team.
The first part of the Elow’s heat-seeking “Teenager Endowment Fund,” titled Songs Were Made to Sing While We’re Young, were tapped on February 3, 2018 at the supportive Laurie Beechman Theatre. Adolescents chosen from Fiorello H. LaGuardia School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Talent Unlimited High School, and the Professional Performing Arts School (with a program run by Rosie’s Kids), will compete before an audience for a first, second and third prize of $2500, $1500, and $1000 meant to further study. Origin schools are not identified in order to maintain lack of prejudice.
The winner will also be given the opportunity to perform October 2018 during the foundation’s annual New York Cabaret Convention.
David Finkle, La Tanya Hall, Jim Morgan, Jeff Harnar, Deborah Grace Winer
I asked each of the judges (beforehand) to describe the qualities of a good cabaret performer. Here’s what they’re respectively hoping to find.
Village Voice/Huffington Post commentator David Finkle: A good cabaret performer should have: 1. A personality 2. Respect for lyrics 3. A reason for singing the songs he/she has chosen 4. Impressing the audience with your voice is not as important as entertaining them
Cabaret Entertainer/ Director- Jeff Harnar: The last thing a good cabaret artist needs to have is a good singing voice. Everything else is essential: a point of view, specificity, intimacy, humor, wisdom, creativity, vulnerability, the gift of storytelling in song and a compelling enough personality to hold an audience for an hour. If you have all that and a good singing voice, that’s cabaret heaven for me.
Cabaret/Jazz Vocalist La Tanya Hall: The most impactful singers are ones who sing to EXPRESS, not IMPRESS. In all music, we must be storytellers and not be so concerned with sound production. Take me on an honest journey, and you have a fan for life.
Producing Director of The York Theater Jim Morgan: My idea of a good cabaret performer is someone whose confident knowledge of the song being performed is evident from their presentation, who is able to connect with an audience through a unique point of view. Ideally, a cabaret artist takes the song in a new direction while honoring the original intent of its creator(s).
Author/Historian/Artistic Director Deborah Grace Winer: What I look for in any cabaret performer is someone who can communicate to an audience a personal point of view on a song, telling a story filtered through his or her own perspective and life experience–with musicality, talent, taste and craft. And always, allowing the song itself to be paramount.
KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation and Vocalist sums it up with: It’s all about telling stories.
On the 118th anniversary of Mabel Mercer’s passing, the competition featured 16 teenagers ranging from 15 to a venerable 19. Each was given a single opportunity with which to show the judges what he/she had to offer. A wide variety of songs from musical theater and traditional songbook were offered.
“It’s through the performances of young people that these songs will live for the next hundred years.” Adela Elow. Hope springs eternal.
*Adela and Larry Elow additionally founded and helm, to date, 26 years of concerts at the Caramoor estate in Katonah, New York and annually underwrite the Donald F. Smith Award presented at The New York Cabaret Convention.
First Prize Winner Christina Jimenez chooses to share Kander & Ebb’s “Sing Happy” (Flora the Red Menace). The vocalist starts low key which gives her time to slowly build emotion. Surety and skill keep lyrics surging without going over the top. Like immutable waves in a smooth surf, she holds balance=focus and brightness, even as keys shift. Chills run up my spine.
The very personable Jimenez tells me she discovered American Songbook at PPAS (Professional Performing Arts School) on a musical theater trajectory at 15.“I knew it was there, I just never sang it myself.” She particularly enjoys telling stories. Cabaret, the young woman wisely observes, allows one to personalize a song instead of bending to its context. Cristina is enthusiastic about this new fount of material. “There were songs I heard today that I want to take a look at.” I found her particularly well grounded, a quality that will serve. Her check will go towards college.
Second Prize Winner Hannah-Jane Peterson delivers a fully (self) staged version of “The Joint Is Really Jumpin’ at Carnegie Hall” (Blaine/Martin/Edens) sung by Judy Garland in Thousands Cheer. Beginning atop the piano, ostensibly bored with accompanist Jon Weber, Peterson is clearly a multifaceted talent. Movement during the boogie woogie chorus is fluid and appealing. Vocal not only sounds swell, but is infused with period attributes; brief scat is a bullseye.
Peterson, also from PPS, tells me she and her now single mother relocated from West Virginia two years ago to facilitate pursuing Hannah’s aspirations. Against all odds, she secured an agent who sends her out for voice-over work, but knows that at 17, she might have to wait on “legitimate” theater. (She’s made other appearances.) The young woman grew up with musicals and standards. She’s always been a Golden Age fan “it’s so relatable…” A junior looking at Pace, Marymount, and Circle in The Square, her determination, impatience and zeal make me think of the character Molly Brown (as in unsinkable). Part of Hannah’s check will go to new dance shoes, the rest towards college.
Naomi Autumn Steele
Third Prize Winner Naomi Autumn Steele (Talented Unlimited High School) applies her fetching voice to “Gorgeous” (Bock & Harnick- The Apple Tree). Without knowledge of the song’s context – Ella’s pleasure and surprise at having been transformed by her fairy godmother, this unique interpretation portrays a woman’s expressing an “obnoxious” (Steele) opinion of herself. The vocalist is a little stiff onstage.
Steele is an opera student who took a flier with this competition. Both knowledge and ambitions lie in that sector. “I chose this song because it had kind of the same color and range that I have…I like to sing lyrics that make me feel good. It’s a confidence booster to sing I’m gorgeous.” The young woman says she concentrates so much on her classical music, she forgets there are other genres she can explore. A window was opened here. (Eileen Farrell interpreted standards after a career in opera. Songbook stylists Sylvia McNair and Tammy McCann were also operatically trained.) A senior who aspires to Ithaca College, her check is going into a bank account.
James Steinman Gordon; Isiah Feil-Sharp
In my opinion the best male performers are 15 year-old James Steinman-Gordon and Isiah Feil-Sharp. Gordon offered Lerner & Lowe’s “On the Street Where You Live” (My Fair Lady) with besotted expression appropriate to young Freddy Eynsford-Hill. His ballad is melodious, emphasis well placed, swell admirably restrained. Unfortunately, the young man never looks at his audience. Feil-Sharp has us from the moment he insouciantly leans against the wall. “Luck Be A Lady” (Frank Loesser- Guys and Dolls) arrives with spit, polish, and theatricality. The vocalist is street cool/credible. He connects as if coolly challenging dispute. Gestures are spot-on.
Annie Ross and Angelina Hairston
Of the women, Annie Ross and Angelina Hairston are striking. Ross renders Rodgers & Hart’s “Falling in Love with Love” (The Boys From Syracuse), immediately assuming character, immediately connecting with the audience. Gestures are meaningful for being minimal. Phrasing makes theatrical sense. Ross stresses a bit on high notes, but that’s just practice…and octave choice. Hairston’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (Waller/Razaf) emerges like slow hip rotation. “What do I care?” issues plaintive. With “I’m home about eight” she charmingly taps her watch. Octaves slip slide with skill and comprehension of the period. Open your eyes please.
Juliette Papadopoulos’ “If I Loved You” (Rodgers & Hammerstein – Carousel) showcases a lovely, legit voice and fine control. The song is perhaps beyond real life experience, however, which diminishes impact. Kerlin Pyun’s cute “I Can Cook” (Comden & Green/ Bernstein – On the Town) evidences great feeling for and ability with swing. The performer needs to moooove however, to sell the otherwise infectious song. She doesn’t have enough fun. Neither of these contestants look at the audience.
In general, the biggest issues after musicality are relating to people out front and choosing material that’s viscerally understood/and or appropriate to experience.
Somewhat of an exception to the last caveat is Joie Bianco, the youngest winner of Mabel Mercer Foundation’s Julie Wilson Award (at 16) and still a student at Talent Unlimited High School. The artist is preternaturally mature on stage managing not just graciousness/warmth and all important connection, but a knack for believably finding herself in songs for which one might otherwise require more maturity.
Bianco is aware of what she’s singing, not just how. She has a captivating voice and fine control. From the apt “I’m Just Too Young to Sing the Blues” (Charles Nater Jones/ /Chuck Meyer) – the last “blues” is, I think, sung in ten syllables, to Styne/Merrill’s iconic “People,” Bianco sets an example to other young performers. (Jon Weber-piano)
KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, offers diverse thanks, in particular to the teachers behind the aspiring artists: Heidi Best, Carl Johnson, Jeff Statile, and Bret Kristofferson. Her pristine a cappella verse of “While We’re Young” (Wilder/Engvick) follows…Songs are meant to sing while we’re young… Adela and Larry quietly sing along.
The program’s benefactors are pleased and, I think, moved. Adela Elow comments she’s glad she’s not a judge and advises the young people to learn, study, perform, and follow their dreams. Larry Elow says he’s sorry he gave Adela such a hard time and now has hope.
The crowd is buoyant. Tune in next year. Meanwhile support American Songbook.
Pianist Jason Andrews accompanied students from Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. Pianist John Pristiani accompanied students from Fiorello H. LaGuardia School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Jon Weber accompanied students from Professional Performing Arts School
Photos by Maryann Lopinto Opening: Naomi Steele, Hannah Peterson, Cristina Jiminez, KT Sullivan, Adela Elow, Larry Elow
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
On the 25th Anniversary of this show’s original opening, (the vocalist’s debut at the fabled Oak Room of The Algonquin Hotel), and the 1st Anniversary of Stephen Hanks’ monthly series New York Cabaret’s Greatest Hits, Jeff Harnar and Alex Rybeck thrilled a club (The Metropolitan Room) so full of enthusiastic audience we practically sat on one another’s laps.
Worthy of The Hollywood Bowl or London Palladium (are you listening New Jersey Performing Arts Center?), this exceptional evening manages to embrace 21 Broadway musicals that opened in or were still running during its memorable 1959 season. The piece, performed with gusto, clarity, and taste, is cleverly framed as a show unto itself (top ticket price $9.20) with narrative arc illuminated by some of the best constructed medleys I’ve ever heard. Occasional duets add sparkle. (MD/pianist/Alex Rybeck.)
Bookended by a splendid arrangement of “Tonight” (West Side Story) delivered in three musical chapters – light piano cadenza, modulated upswell, Broadway fervor and a gauzy “Till Tomorrow”(Fiorello) – this adroitly written show also contains opening and second act Overtures and an amusing Entr’acte. The latter skillfully conjectures what people might be talking about in Shubert Alley at the time.
Jeff Harnar doesn’t just look around the room, he looks into our eyes making this an immersive experience. The performer is expressive and charming. Lightness of carriage and infectious love of the material makes us feel as if we’re at a stylish, showbiz party. Harnar is in superb, muscular voice. He musically turns on a dime and delivers appreciable script without dropping a stitch. There are songs performed with theatrical accents and others he inhabits with seemingly fresh character awareness. Sara Louise Lazarus reprises and conceivably improves upon her expert Direction.
We meet our boy and girl with “A Perfect Evening” (First Impressions.) He says I’ve seen her kind before…uppity laugh… She says, I’ve seen his kind before…head in the clouds, nose inthe air… The lyric is party spoken to great effect. “The wonderful thing about first impressions is that they change” prefaces a waltzy “Nine O’Clock” (Take Me Along) followed by a rich, aptly besotted “On the Street Where You Live” (My Fair Lady). “I Don’t Think I’ll End It All Today” (Jamaica) arrives with fair accent, engaging gestures, and dancey demeanor.
The show’s Marriage Medley slyly employs a familiar wedding theme from Company as a red herring, bridging numbers from other musicals. In part: “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” (My Fair Lady) is a wry dirge; Harnar’s reoccurring “Don’t Marry Me” (Flower Drum Song) emerges sophisticated, insouciant; “One Hand, One Heart” (West Side Story) contains a sob which seems new to this artist. Rybeck ably duets. Remember, he can sing. “As the Act I curtain falls, we find our hero contemplating the wisdom of his dreams.” Hands at his sides, ostensibly holding it together, Harnar showcases finesse while Rybeck’s arrangement shimmers light on selected passages.
Act II opens with a Political Medley featuring such as: “Little Tin Box” (Fiorello) during which Rybeck plays the prosecutor and Harnar the witnesses, several with New Yawk accents. This ends with a jaunty, ersatz soft shoe. And the acerbic hoedown “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands” (L’il Abner) which sounds disturbingly current. (Why is no one doing a cabaret show of Broadway political songs?)
We then revisit “our troubled lovers.” “I Say Hello” (Destry Rides Again) brims with entreaty; “Long Before I Knew You” (Bells Are Ringing) is palpably warm, “Look Who’s In Love” (Redhead) lands surprised. Before the coda of this section, we hear Harnar’s Harold Hill tell partner-in-crime Marcellus that he can’t run away even if it means being caught. In love with Marian the Librarian,“… for the first time in my life, I got myfootcaught in the door…” (‘Inspired use of a line.). Four bars of “Till There Was You” (The Music Man) adds a cursive flourish. Always a talented balladeer, the vocalist brings sincerity to songs that might be merely sentimental in other’s hands.
A moving “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (The Sound of Music) with unexpectedly entrancing piano serves as encore. Harnar is tender, not stressed. The song appears heady in a different, more affecting way. Much of the room tears up. Bravo!
This extraordinary show unfortunately has no future dates.
Photos by Steve Friedman
New York Cabaret’s Greatest Hits presents Jeff Harnar sings The 1959 Broadway Songbook First engagement at The Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel 1991 Recorded live on Original Cast Records 1992 Jeff Harnar-Vocals Alex Rybeck- MD/Piano & Vocals Sara Louise Lazarus- Director The Metropolitan Room 34 West 22nd Street August 13, 2016 Venue Calendar
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.