A Night At and After the MAC Awards
20th Annual Awards for MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs): April
by Rob Lester
The smoke-filled rooms are gone, but going to a club for entertainment in New
York City is changing in some other ways while retaining its traditions. The 20th
annual MAC Awards were about celebrating and honoring that. Lines are
blurring as jazz and cabaret rub shoulders - and who doesn't enjoy some comedy
relief? Some of MAC's member clubs (numbering over 70) offer a bit of
everything. You'll find comedy bookings, musical acts that have a
theatrical framework, theater-based singers doing show tunes with jazz players,
and variety shows offering a combination platter.
Expressing her surprise to be
honored with MAC's Board of Directors Award, Phoebe Snow told the audience,
"I didn't know I was a cabaret singer." And she followed a thoughtful rendition of a
theater song, "Never Never Land" with a searing blues number, "In My Girlish
Days." Her spot was one of the highlights of the evening hosted by Lee Roy
Reams who shared memories and quips. The night opened with an overture by
the six-piece band jazz band led by trumpeter Bud Burridge. It included "Memory"
from Cats (a nod to Lifetime Achievement honoree Betty Buckley) and two
Kander & Ebb tunes: a toast to the city in question (the theme from the film
New York, New York) and - for obvious reasons - "Cabaret." But the
evening underlined that cabaret today is not just a variation of what's seen in the
musical Cabaret, nor an endless series of women in black dresses
lamenting lost love, nor an art form that is graying, fraying or decaying. There was
new blood heating things up without ignoring the classics of the past.
Miles Phillips and Phoebe Snow
The Young and the Restless
A sudden burst of energy lit up the stage of the Tribeca Performing Arts
Center when the singers nominated for their New York cabaret debuts joined
forces in numbers especially created by writer-performer Michael Holland. Early
in the show, the women (Suzanne Fiore, Terese Genecco, Rosalynn McClore and
Alisa Schiff) rocked the crowd, belting a high-energy number with lyrics
proclaiming that "this ain't your mama's cabaret." Each had a turn to solo in
this playful but powerhouse-style tailor-made piece. The three male newcomer
nominees (Jasper Kump, Matt Sigl and Evan Stern) got a green light to goofily
play against type in their trio medley. Each was nominated for his club act
featuring traditional material, so for fun and with a big wink, they took the dare to
sing a hit by Cher and the tough hip-hop item that won this year's Academy
Award, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." Coming deep into a very long evening
(over three-and-a-half hours all told), this picked up the crowd that was becoming
The legendary besequined veteran Julie Wilson ("First Lady Of
Cabaret") was on hand to announce the winners of this group. In the female
category, Alisa Schiff won for her tribute to Cass Elliot of The Mamas & Papas,
and she made a gracious thank you speech. Matt Sigl was the male designee for
his madcap Unstuck in Time about his fascination for songs from the good
old days he wished he had experienced. He proclaimed that he was pessimistic
about the appeal of his act at first, saying he had wondered, "what kind of losers
would want to come see another out-of-work actor in a tuxedo singing his favorite
show tunes?" And then, gesturing to the audience with a teasing grin, he
continued, "To my joyous surprise, the losers were all of you."
Cabaret singers with more experience under their belts (and more belting
experience) took home statuettes for their latest work this past year in cabarets.
Speaking of "Cabaret," in the Impersonation category Liza Minnelli channeler
Rick Skye was the victor. (Presenter Ruby Rims called the competition in this slot
"the drag race".) The Noel Coward celebration A Marvelous Party (with KT
Sullivan, Jeff Harnar and Karen Kohler) was named in the Revue category. Sue
Matsuki and her musical director Gregory Toroian won for their show celebrating
their series celebrating a decade of partnership, Ricky Ritzel was selected as
Piano Bar Entertainer, Diana Templeton got the Female Vocalist nod, and the
beaming Colm Reilly received two awards: as Male Vocalist and Piano
Bar Singer. Colm not only sings at Helen's, he owns and runs it with his partner in
business and life, Shane Mathews, who is the club's technical director, and this
year's MAC winner in that category. In fact, all eight of the awards in this
paragraph represent work seen at Helen's. Not a bad night for that club!
Betty Buckley graced the evening with two thoughtful, moving selections:
"Dreamin'" by Amanda McBroom and "I Am a Town" by Mary Chapin Carpenter,
thanking all for her Lifetime Achievement award. Other major cabaret honors went
to Karen Mason (Major Engagement) and Miles Phillips who received the special
Hanson Award for his ongoing work. Miles shared the stage with a group of
other male vocalists to add harmonies with "Baby, Talk to Me" from Bye Bye
Birdie. Impresario Donald Smith (The Mabel Mercer Foundation/ The
Cabaret Convention) was given a Lifetime Achievement Award and shared some
memories. Klea Blackhurst introduced him with a speech that teased and
pleased the audience. (She claimed Massachusetts-born Donald's first full
sentence as an infant was, "When do we move to New York?" and that he met
Mabel Mercer when the iconic cabaret artist's income could barely cover her rent
and taxes - Klea mock-proudly said the current generation of cabaret singers is
"keeping that tradition alive!")
Karen Mason and Bety Buckley
Jazz and Cheers
As MAC's member clubs have grown to include more and more jazz and
comedy rooms and those who multi-task, the entertainment and award categories
reflect that, too. Jazz musicians have MACs for their mantles, among them
instrumentalists Fred Hersch, Wycliff Gordon, Sonny Rollins (winning for his CD),
and The Frank & Joe Show, vocalists Andy Bey and Karrin Allyson. Only the
last-named artist was present to accept. Presenter Barry Levitt, a former MAC
President and a formidable jazz player himself (who regales brunchers each
Sunday at The Iridium, among other sightings), explained succinctly as winners'
names were announced: "He has a gig tonight."
At age 85, veteran jazz trumpeter
Clark Terry needed help walking on stage, moving gingerly. Acknowledging this,
he put the audience at ease by smiling and saying carefully, "For those of you who
don't know, The Golden Years ... suck." This got one of the night's biggest laughs.
Musically, he was not at a loss, playing "Perdido" (yes, that's a pun) from a chair.
Though he did not stand, the audience did - in a heartfelt standing ovation as he
accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award. Later, another jazz star accepted her
Lifetime Achievement Award; Sheila Jordan vibrantly sang some special
autobiographical lyrics about her roles as lifelong jazz lover and embraced two
important parts of her life: the influence of Charlie Parker and motherhood ("Dat
Dere," the fun tune about being a parent - she was introduced by her daughter).
She also received a warm reception.
Laughs and Tears
Comedy and music combined, with Creation Nation performing in hard-to-top
over-the-top style. This was the magazine Time Out New York's
Award for the year, cutely introduced by its entertaining entertainment editor,
Adam Feldman. He told the crowd he'd described last year's winner, Maude
Maggart, as a flower and said the politically incorrect satirical Creation Nation
could be called the thorn. Adam did a twist on what some winners tend to talk
about: pursuing lifelong dreams of show business success and gratitude for family
encouragement. He sauntered onto the stage and commented on why he ended
up in the career he has, claiming it was because his parents did not
encourage or endorse him becoming a performer. Other lauded laughter
providers included Bill Burr, Jessica Kirson and Judy Gold, who got a Board of
Directors Award and did her trademark politically incorrect kvetches and rants.
(Singer-songwriter Julie Gold won for her series at The Duplex, but
remarked on the confusion that often happens with the women's similar names,
claiming whenever Judy has a TV shot, her mother gets phone calls.)
And There's More ...
An extra added attraction was talented singer-songwriter Ben Taylor who
received a warm reception for two original songs, one comic and one touching.
Cabaret favorite Sidney Myer, the performer and manager of Don't Tell Mama,
was not seen but was heard throughout the night doing voiceover intros with his
recognizable lilt and grand style. Another cabaret mainstay, Phil Geoffrey Bond of
The Duplex, won in the category of Director (again) and Rick Jensen was voted
the honors in the Musical Director area. Ray Jessel, winning for his funny
songwriting for the second year in a row, got an extra giggle when beginning his
acceptance speech, "I promise to be brief ... but will fail." Tireless music champion
David Kenney of radio's Everything Old Is New Again (WBAI, 99.5 on
Sunday nights for over a quarter of a century) announced the two winners in the
CD category (Lee Lessack's duets album, In Good Company, and Sonny
Rollins' concert CD). With music by Ronny Whyte, lyrics by Francesca
Blumenthal and a recording by Marlene VerPlanck, the Song of the Year was "The
Party Upstairs" - and parties were held afterwards at a nearby restaurant and at
Helen's where double-MAC-Awarded Colm Reilly spontaneously invited everyone
to have a drink on him. That's where I headed, too, and got these quotes from
those pictured below:
For more information on MAC, including a complete list of this year's winners, visit www.MACnyc.com.
Our pre-event article with comments by MAC's co-President, Judy Barnett
(who directed and co-produced the evening)
After an evening that was scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. and ended twenty minutes
shy of midnight, followed by the pre-paid dinner and party, the MAC Awards night
might think about borrowing the name of annual New York City event, The New
York Marathon. But partiers at Helen's showed no sign of fatigue. Here are some comments from those involved, told to me at the Helen's party in the wee small hours of the morning.
Ricky Ritzel: "I was amazed that I won. I had no idea I'd be a piano bar
entertainer. Tonight was like the old days. It was cabaret. It was what it
Colm Reilly (Helen's, winner of 2 MACs this year, and co-Vice President of
MAC): "I was very happy to win both awards, especially Male Vocalist. What was
so touching and wonderful was how many people had such lovely things to say
about the staff of Helen's in their speeches, saying how welcomed and
comfortable they feel with us."
Shane Mathews, Helen's/ Technical Director Award on winning: "It was the
biggest shock of the evening. But I snapped right out of it when Colm offered the
whole audience a free drink!"
Klea Blackhurst comparing her comical tribute to Donald Smith to preparing
an act:: "You do the research, you distill it down. An audience wants to laugh." On
the event as a whole: "A unique night! Fun energy! Clark Terry really got to me."
Matt Sigl, Male Debut winner: "When you're in cabaret, you go to see these
performers all the time, throughout the year. Then, suddenly, they're all in one
place all together one one night. I'm glad I was so petrified about the song! It was
so complicated that I couldn't really be nervous about about the award."
Karen Koehl (Revue): "Compared to Berlin and London, I've been really
impressed with the range of entertainment here. New York cabaret is a very
nurturing group. I was surprised that we won because we were in such a real
KT Sullivan (Revue): "I have a much more liberal definition of cabaret than
some people do. It is: if people listen, it's cabaret. I wish my sister
[nominee Heather Sullivan] were have been here to see this. She thinks of me as
the family member who does cabaret. But tonight, she'd see her style was part of
Miles Phillips: "I don't do shows for awards. I work mostly as an actor. I felt
particularly honored to get the Hanson Award - it's a way to acknowledge the
art of cabaret. I chose this song because it's about reaching out, and it's
Penny Landau founding member of MAC 23 years ago: "The
whole concept of MAC and the awards has come so far. I remember the early
years - at The Ballroom with cheese sandwiches! They keep saying cabaret is
dying. You can't kill cabaret! As we say in Brooklyn, 'these guys don't wanna die
none.' But there aren't a lot of outlets for spreading the word nowadays. Thank
goodness for the websites-- the dot com world."
Rick Skye, Impersonation winner on that category: "Some people dismiss this form of
entertainment. People who I know who do it take it very seriously. Now having
done it myself, I know it's double cabaret - you're revealing yourself
through inhabiting another personality. MAC recognizes this."
MAC Co-President Scott Barbarino, "Well, I had a good time!! But it's been a
very long day."
Photos: Maryann Lopinto