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.
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
Like a floating crap game or the back alley dive Pompie’s Place purports to be, the club makes its third appearance in the eminently comfortable back room at Pangea. As introduced by its dapper, unapologetic host, the joint welcomes con men, bootleggers, big house veterans, suckers, molls and dames, the low with mazuma and the high with moxie. It’s all Blues all the time here. Fasten your seat belts and raise a glass – hooch is imported from Atlantic City.
Proud and sultry, Lezlie Harrison opens with “St. Louis Blues” (W.C. Handy). Potent as bottom of the barrel moonshine, the song goes down smooth, but kicks. Lyrics are squeezed from the bottom of the ‘tube.’ “Kansas City” …hee ah cum… (Jerry Lieber/ Mike Stoller) is a boogie woogie with swinging sax. Harrison’s voice shimmies, then careens off the walls. At one point, the musicians play three-handed, crossing over with infectious glee. Time is clapped, knees rise and fall, thighs are patted. The powerful attitude warns: prepare for me!
Tanya Holt takes the stage wearing lament like a heavy coat, periodically bucking forward in slo-mo as if life’s hit her in the gut. “Ill Wind” (Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler) is an exhausted plea, resigned, yet still entreating. Sustained vibrato nests at the wellspring of Holt’s throat like a controlled moan. “When I Get Low I Get High” (Chick Webb/Ella Fitzgerald) is smoky, ravaged, and focused. Every word is pristine, every ohahohoh like butter. You gotta do what you gotta do…she sings opening her eyes wide. Ehud Asherie’s piano erupts in pungent ragtime. Ken Peplowski’s clarinet seems to be having an illicitly good time.
Louis Armstrong/Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wildman Blues” and Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” are delivered as instrumentals. The first is sassy, slinky, and very cool with high clarinet that oozes its way under one’s skin. The second conjures choreography by Alvin Ailey. Piano has classical underpinnings.
Ehud Asherie and Ken Peplowski
Harrison and Holt offer a number of tantalizing songs in tandem. “After You’ve Gone” (Turner Layton/Henry Creamer) aka “After We’ve Gone” is a threat to Pompie who ostensibly forks over less lettuce than a lady needs to survive. Holt is down on her haunches seducing her uncomfortable patron while Harrison shakes her bootie showing what he’ll miss. It’s a rag with humor.
“Willow Tree” finds two juicy voices wailing on top of, beside, and around each other with deference and style. The clarinet solo could make Gabriel jealous. A duet of the iconic “Mood Indigo” (Duke Ellington/Barney Bigard/Irving Mills) in harmony is as languid and sensual as stretching on satin sheets after a hot bath. “Blues in the Night” (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer) includes an ooooeeee which is sheer evangelical call-out. Octave transitions are seamless. Piano plays robust honky-tonk.
Vocalists are well chosen. Harrison’s approach is bright and audacious while Holt’s wattage comes from deep, dusky ardor and lyric sculpting.
Lezlie Harrison, Pompie, Tanya Holt
There are comments and cracks personifying character which skillfully add to atmosphere, but the host’s monologue needs work and recordings of outside mayhem are unnecessary.
This is a really good time. A walk on the wildish side with primo musicians in benign surroundings.
Photos by Lou Montasano Opening: Tanya Holt, Lezlie Harrison
Pompie’s Place- A Pop-Up Blues Club Host Arthur “Pompie” Pomposello, for 18 years host and booker of the famed Oak Room at The Algonquin Hotel Vocalists: Tanya Holt and Lezlie Harrison Ehud Asherie- MD/Piano, Ken Peplowski-Reeds. Directed by Gregg Goldston One more show August 10- Jon-Erik Kellso-on Trumpet that night Pangea 178 Second Avenue between 11th & 12th Street Venue Calendar
Between Germany’s defeat in World War I and Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, The Weimar Republic exploded with artistic and intellectual experimentation. Politics, money, prejudice, and sex became predominant themes in the chaotic environment, all grotesquely satirized by a darkening culture. German Kabaretts flourished, offering stories, jokes, songs and dancing ripe with sexual innuendo. Nudity became common. Those once forced to hide offending orientation, flaunted it.
Many Americans were made aware of the period’s club culture by Emil Jannings’ 1930 film The Blue Angel starring Marlene Deitrich or, more likely, Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories from which the musical and film, Cabaret derived. Mad Jenny, aka Jenny Lee Mitchell, invokes the style, content, and context of one of these kabaretts, in both English and German. Her well researched, ardent presentation will, at times, make you forget where and when you are.
Emerging in slim cut, man’s suiting and a top hat, hair sharply to one side, Jenny kibitzes with the audience on her way to the stage. (Pushy interaction was common.) “Life’s a Swindle” she sings, Papa swindles/ Mama swindles/ Grandmama’s a lying thief… (Mischa Spoliansky/Marcellus Schiffer; English lyrics: Jeremy Lawrence) Contralto intermittently and purposefully wobbles in the emphasizing manner of the period.
A reference to Donald Trump in Swindle is one of several interjected into the show. Except for the later, politically updated lyric to “Chuck All the Men” (Friedrich Hollander/Claire Waldoff; English lyric: Jeremy Lawrence), I found these gratuitous and distracting. Calling out current, rather scary parallels is unnecessary for that resonance to be apparent, but at least this song is clever and self contained.
It’s March 1923. Hitler has announced he would vote for the antisemitic Henry Ford should Ford run for president. Jenny offers brief, salient facts which help orient us to social ambiance. She also sporadically quotes artist George Grosz, particularly known for his biting visual work depicting Germany in the 1920s.
Mid performance of the aggressive, nasal “There’s Nothing Quite Like Money” (Hanns Eisler/ Bertolt Brecht; English lyrics: Eric Bentley), Jenny rips off literally half her costume to reveal a short, red sequined dress. She’s now half man, half woman. How, she asks incredulously, can Jill love Jack if he’s poor?! One side of her caresses the other while grabbing for an elusive bill.
Jenny wraps a black velvet coat over divided apparel, then offers a brutal musical ‘discussion’ between a desperate, destitute pregnant woman and her unsympathetic doctor. As this ends, with dazed examination of a wire coat hanger on which, it appears, she fantastically plays music, the club is stone silent.
The next song describes histrionic loss of what seems to be a woman’s lover, but turns out to be her ‘pussy.’ “…whoever you love, no one should judge you.” (Remember Kander and Ebb’s “If You Could See Her” from Cabaret in which the emcee is in love with a gorilla?)
Two contemporary numbers find their way into the show masked by arrangements and direction that belie recent composition. Of these, “Love Is a Stranger” (Annie Lennox/David A. Stewart) is particularly effective. Manifest as a duet (with Maria Dessena on accordion and vocals) sung by two women riding in an open car, it might here be about an obsessive same sex relationship. Love is a danger/Of a different kind/To take you away/And leave you far behind…When Jenny lifts one end of her long, red scarf and then the back of her companion’s hair to flutter it behind, we’re captivated.
The actress chats with her audience, referring to the “dingy little room” in which she’s playing, offering drinks tickets to anyone who made the effort to come from Bushwick or Inwood. Though I understand the desire for a little patter, I’d’ve preferred to remain in the conjured kabarett rather than jolted back to the present.
This is followed by exotic dancer, Miss Ekaterna, with a guest turn as Anita Berber. The artist strips down to panties, pasties, and black hose in a somewhat drunken manner while usurping drinks from and draping herself over surprised patrons. She also theatrically provides oral sex to a long stemmed rose. Though she and the rose are wickedly graphic, I find other movement clumsy and without heat. Upon commenting this, however, I was told by someone more knowledgeable, that Berber herself was more shocking than sensual. Guests in future will vary.
“On Suicide” (Hanns Eisler/Bertolt Brecht; English lyric: Eric Bentley from The Good Person of Szechwan) is harsh and hopeless. “In March 1943, the Polish government in exile released the first statement about Auschwitz.” As you look more closely/People and things tend to look threadbare and pointless…Jerry DeVore’s bass sounds like something out of a horror film while Ric Becker’s trombone creates palpable, gothic wind. One shivers.
“When Hitler came to power, many artists fled Berlin. Others were taken away.” Here Jenny introduces audience member Lily Reiser who not only survived a series of concentration camps including the Czech fortress Terezin, but was on a death march when the war ended. Reiser comments that “Performers gave us hope and courage to finish the oppressors and be able to go on again.”
“An Optimistic Song”, with lyrics written in Terezin, translates, in part, as He who bears his torture with faith in the future…don’t lose your sense of humor, you need a sense of humor… (Jaroslav Jezek/Frantisek Komanitz; English lyric: Lisa Peschel)
On each table is a sheet with two verses of “Leben Ohne Liebe Kannst Du Nicht” (Mischa Spoliansky/Robert Gilbert) the homosexual anthem in which we’re invited to join:
We are the ones who are not like the others,/ For we don’t love the way they think is good./They shut us out and call us not their brothers,/Living their boring lives as they think they should.
We do not know the hate and fear they show us,/Even though they do not hold us dear./We love the nights of lavender and freedom,/We are the others and proud to be queer.
How much of humanity now suffers prejudice for provoked by race, religion, sex, class? Changing a few words, this powerful sentiment is unfortunately as pertinent today as when it was written.
Costumes are splendid. Gowns, wraps, and headgear reflect art and photos.
Director Patrice Miller has done an excellent job evoking mood with gesture and expression. The show is dense, but well paced, its numbers effectively sequenced. If only Jenny would look AT her audience more often, toying with us, personally challenging beliefs/conscience!
An absolutely terrific band features Maria Dessena on piano, accordion, and vocals, Ric Becker playing mercurial trombone, and Jerry DeVore expertly communing with a 5-string bass. Outstanding arrangements by Dessena evoke the era like a time machine.
This is an ambitious, well realized presentation, both deeply sobering and entertaining. Recommended.
Performance Photos by Daniel Murtagh Opening: Mad Jenny
Love Und Greed plays the first Monday of every month through June 6, 2016 Pangea 178 Second Avenue at 11th Street Dinner is served both in a front room and the intimate club space.