Monday night, the National Arts Club hosted Shana Farr and Steve Ross in a unique concert spotlighting Christmas and some of the collaborators’ other best loved things. The unique evening offered original arrangements of familiar holiday songs, wry, unexpected novelty numbers, love, romance, hope, faith, and affectionate nods to Cole Porter, Alan Jay Lerner and Manhattan. It was warm, amusing, uplifting and stylish.
A Viennese-waltz-like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of The Year” segues, with Ross’s “Oh!” into “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” –he’s flirty! And then Farr’s melodically gliding “Sleigh Ride.” Ross tells us “Snow” was written on a hot Los Angeles day. Heat apparently inspires Christmas songs. Irving Berlin is said to have penned “White Christmas” at La Quinta Hotel in Arizona, probably we’re told, in the middle of the night. (He was an insomniac.) “Take this down,” Berlin commanded his secretary. “I’ve just written the best song anyone’s every written.” Accompaniment is both harmonious and fresh.
In the satiric vein, Midwestern-bred Farr performs “Department Stores Mean Christmas to Me.” “…They had to get that frankincense from somewhere!” arrives ingénue-sincere. (David Cameron Anderson/Steve Landau) “I did sit on Santa’s lap outside (J.C.) Penny’s” she admits. And, in duet, Fred Silver’s immortal “The Twelve Days After Christmas”: The third day after Christmas, my Mother caught the croup/I had to use the three French Hens to make some chicken soup/The four calling birds were a big mistake for their language was obscene/The five golden rings were completely fake and they turned my fingers green…
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” wafts light and lilting (Farr) in tandem with John Wallowitch’s uber-droll “Three Penny Things” (Ross). The latter is just what it sounds like, a charming, family-friendly lyric riding Kurt Weill’s foreboding music. Ross’s ersatz chermin interpretation: “…schnitzel mit noodles…ven the dog bites ven the bee sinks…” is tongue-in-cheek perfect.
Citing the centenary of Alan Jay Lerner, Farr offers “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” as if breathing in tune and Ross sings a tender “The Heather On the Hill” whose melody emerges like an embrace by graceful arms.
More recent material is represented by Larry Kirchner’s “Winter in Manhattan”- Farr imbues its lyric with deep affection, Ross’s soulful, rather elegant “Manhattan Moon” (Richard Crosby/Steve Ross), and “It’s Almost Christmas Eve” (Rosie Casey/Ken Hirsch/Steve Ross/Frederick Chopin), a Norman Rockwell painting of friends, and family evoking gratitude.
The traditional “Three Ships”: I saw three ships come sailing in/On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day;/I saw three ships come sailing in/On Christmas Day in the morning…replete with pianistic chimes and- reverence, is lovely. Farr’s acoustic “Oh Holy Night” carries gravitas further. The artist annually sings in a one-room Missouri church at which her grandparents still worship. Tonight she might just as well be wearing a long white choir robe bathed in shafts of light coming through a stained glass window. A powerful and humble rendition.
Farr’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” and “Santa Baby” are less successful for lack of engaging sexual innuendo. Ross’s inevitable Cole Porter numbers though swell, don’t really fit.
To close, we all sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The room is warmer than when we entered, dispositions have softened, spirits have risen. A sophisticated evening presented with talent, class, mutual regard, and genuine feeling for the season.
Photos by Bruce Allan
The National Arts Club – since 1898
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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.”
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.”
“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.
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.”
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.”
Details and Tickets: Mabel Mercer Foundation Events
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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