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.

Mabel Madness

Preview: The 27th Annual New York Cabaret Convention


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

Details and Tickets: Mabel Mercer Foundation Events
Receive the weekly SPOTLIGHT newsletter by emailing info@mabelmercer.org.

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

Trezana Beverley’s Mabel Madness


Mabel Madness is an intimate show, in an intimate theater, about an intimate performer.  Mabel Mercer was a resilient and stalwart figure in the history of cabaret who significantly influenced the American music scene in the mid-20th century. Mabel Madness, which ran a brief 80 minutes in the preview I attended, is rich with song, but it is crafted and performed as theater.

Trezana Beverley did what performers have done for centuries to gain a platform – she wrote her own drama, in this case, one that focuses on Mercer. The story is peppered with songs, most recorded by Mercer, and two composed for the show by Barry Levitt, a much-admired New York musical director, with lyrics by Peter Napolitano, the director of Musical Theatre.

Deconstructing the facts of Mercer’s life, Beverley reweaves them into a story that is personal to her.(I note here significant disparities between various Mercer bios but, for purposes of this review, I have relied on the facts relayed by Beverley.) Beverley is a much decorated graduate of the NYU Tisch School for the Arts, has sung and acted on stage and screen (winning a Tony for her work in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf), and has directed for the stage; she is currently part of the guest directing faculty of the Julliard School in New York City.

01_ Mable Madness featuring Trezana Beverley. Photos by TANJA HAYES PHOTOSMercer was credited with being the vocalist story teller. This performance, while tracing Mercer’s life, purports to tell us how that very successful focus arose, albeit painfully, from Mercer’s life. I heard Mercer myself only late in her career when I assumed she had adopted her style to accommodate a diminished voice and encroaching age but, in the course of the evening, I learned otherwise – and a good deal more that I had never known and would never have guessed.  Is this a history that one has to know to be accounted a fully cultured person?  Perhaps not.  But it is an interesting story affectingly told.  Beverley has, through her locution and singing voice, nicely evoked Mercer’s style and stage persona, and decorates the history with enough personal details, and Mercer songs, to bring the story to life.

The history is related as reminiscence shared by Mercer while nervously preparing for a performance, arranged by her near life-long promoter Donald Smith, after a long hiatus from the stage. Mercer was the product, in 1900, of a youthful dalliance in England between a white, British, teen-aged musical hall performer and Ben Mercer, a black vaudevillian acrobat. Mercer was admonished always to call her mother Emily “Auntie Em.” A shy child, Mercer’s mother forced her, against her will, to speak the Queen’s English and to project her voice. As a small child, Mercer turned to her Grandma Whadem for emotional shelter and was ultimately abandoned by her mother to her grandmother’s care in a household of relatives.

02_ Mable Madness featuring Trezana Beverley. Photos by TANJA HAYES PHOTOSMercer was subsequently swept from that very Catholic and condemnatory context to be deposited in a local nunnery; mom moved to America and adopted the name Emily LeBlanc. Beverley relates a bit of Mercer’s traumatic history with the nuns, her graduation onto the street at 14 with only her mother’s New York address, stints in the music halls of London and Brussels, back row parts in Showboat, her move to Paris in the mid-20s, and effective adoption by “Brick” (nee Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, another mixed race child who became a mainstay of café society) and her life-long agent Donald Smith.

Mercer became the toast of Parisian cabaret – she was befriended by Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, was sought out by the nobility of England and drew the cultural luminaries of the age: Picasso, Chaplin, Channel, Olivier, Gabel and Grable, Marlena Dietrich and her lover, Jo Carstairs. Dietrich paid Mercer’s reluctant way to America in anticipation of the Nazi occupation of Paris.  Mercer reached out once again to Auntie Em, and arranged to meet her mother.  When Mercer asked whether she might call her and acknowledge her as “mother,” Auntie Em promised to “think about it.” Subsequently struck with tonsillitis, Mercer’s surgery was footed by Carstairs who then spirited her to a private Island in Nassau for recovery. There she met and fell into love with Kelsey Farr, a gay, black singer, who promised her all the emotional room she might ever need; they were wed and returned to New York.

Later Mercer was courted by Harry Beard, soon revealed to be married but unable to wangle a divorce, who promised he would never leave her; he did not. Ultimately Mercer was sought out as a role model and teacher by the likes of Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Barbara Cooke, Billie Holiday and, most notoriously, Frank Sinatra, who credited Mercer with teaching him how to phrase a lyric. That skill she apparently got from Auntie Em who repeatedly coached her to tell a story, to act a part.

04_ Mable Madness featuring Trezana Beverley. Photos by TANJA HAYES PHOTOSWhether as a matter of necessity or simple internal strength, Mercer lived by her own rules – never having had the guidance or shelter of a traditional family.  She was timid, tough, tenacious and independent. She was sought out and feted as a performer and, only after her mother’s death, came to appreciate some of the scant good Auntie Em had done for her.

There is a sweet dénouement to the arc of the show which, for dramatic effect, I will refrain from sharing. Suffice it to say that Mercer was a triumphant survivor who started with little and made the most of it; she made loyal friends and gained life-time admirers; she imprinted her style on the golden era of American song like few others. She is a part of the history of American musical performance.  The history would benefit by being more frequently anchored to external events, but Beverley’s telling is an appealing way to take in this history and learn more about Mercer’s remarkable life.

Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano are co-directors; Tuffus Zimbabwe provided suitably unobtrusive musical direction; Gail Cooper-Hecht, costumer design; Tabitha Pease, scenic design and Christina Watanabe, lighting.  Nicholas Blade Guldner provided video design – which effectively superimposed people and places on the rear scrim to illustrate Mercer’s recollections.

Tanja Hayes Photos

Mabel Madness will be performed at Urban Stages at 259 West 30th Street through March 20, 2016.