his review of Betty Buckley: "Ah Men! The Boys of Broadway"
by Rob Lester
The Great American Songbook is in good hands as some familiar hands turn its pages and raise their celebrated (and celebrating) voices at the 22nd annual Cabaret Convention concerts, in the Rose Theater within Jazz at Lincoln Center at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Once a seven-day event, it's currently just three nights, making a singer's inclusion all the more a plum, with the returnee class act veterans dominating. For October 20's opening concert, the most commonly invoked policy of two songs per singer, with minimal talk, was the order of the day.
Named for the grand dame of thoughtful lyric interpreters in small, intimate clubs, the Mabel Mercer Foundation presents this annual event, but its executive director and host these many years, Donald Smith, is recuperating from surgery and unable to attend. He sent his good wishes to be read, with a little joke that allowed him to invoke the name of the hospital he's had to call home: "I can't be with you tonight because I'm working on my cabaret act with my old pal, Beth Israel." Associate Rick Meadows conveyed the message before turning the hosting duties over to Andrea Marcovicci, who introduced each act with enthused appreciation. As sometimes happens, the originally announced slate of artists was not exactly who was there, but other performers were added. (Christine Ebersole's smiling face was only present on the cover of the complimentary copies of Cabaret Scenes Magazine being handed out, and Karen Mason was unable to arrange a flights between Chicago rehearsals of the musical version of A Christmas Story, though she did send along her regrets and an acceptance speech as recipient of the annual Mabel Mercer Award.)
Comic relief and the male presence in cabaret were also on the agenda to wisely ward off any fear of overdosing in too much of a good thing of songs of heartbreak or heart-pounding sincerity delivered by a parade of divas in black dresses or sequins (or both). Fulfilling both change-of-pace criteria, saucy and oh-so sly Sidney Myer started off his set with "bang-bang-bang-bang" singing as a gleeful little boy who wants to be a gun-toting G-man in "When I Grow Up" (Harold Rome, from the revue Pins and Needles). In his own self-imposed tradition, Sidney grandly intoned "Good eeevening" and introduced his pianist du jour (the game Matthew Ward) with the same cadence and words he's used for years ("seated at the Steinwayor a reasonable facsimile ..."). Getting goofily lusty he repeated his popular extolling of the biological mystique of "Pheromones." The plucky and impish Colleen McHugh, in an eye-catching purple gown, created a laugh riot laboriously "translating" line by line the French words of "Mon Dieu" moaned and groaned by KT Sullivan, looking pained, clutching a picture of Edith Piaf. The gimmick was alternating literal translations with super-loose, chatty or ranting modern substitutions (starting with the repeated, repeated, repeated title line, "My God" in English, going back and forth between smilingly obliging offhand and off-the-wall frantic deliveries). Then the versatile Colleen showed she's more than an expert comedienne and wailed the English version of a Piaf trademark, "If You Love Me, Really Love Me," beginning wistfully and soon ripping the roof off with power pipes.
Craig Rubano sat on a stool, taking on one of the warhorses of them all, "Stardust,"and sang it simply yet sincerely, though I found the lighting effect of star shapes and spheres all over the back wall distractingly unnecessary to create mood that was all in the voice. And that voice's power was on display as he casually put the mic down for his second song, "When Day Is Done," unamplified. Steve Ross, introduced as "the crown prince of cabaret," brought his usual mix of elegance and oomph on elegant vocals and piano. He graced a relatively recent song that's one of the strongest of all nominees to join the pantheon of Songbook classics, the beautifully crafted "Time" by Joseph Thalken and Barry Kleinbort. Going back decades, he renewed the resilience of a 100-year-old song, singing and playing Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" with joy, taking up the old lyric's invitation, "So if you care to hear the 'Swanee River' played in ragtime ..." by going to town with that old Stephen Foster river reverie. He was also called upon to accompany Corky Hale, usually her own accompanist on piano or harp. She encouraged him to take a longer solo on "I Want To Be Happy," following her unnecessary apologies and fretting about her voice and dry throat, saying a couple of times she wished she had a glass of water and isn't known as a singer. "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me" was the song she chose to sing with her own piano playing, perhaps with more slowness and seriousness than the charm song really can support.
Of course, not every act can be everyone's cup of tea and not everyone can be at his or her absolutely best or with the best choice of song each night, some working better in the context of a full act. Having given up her opera career for the standards, Sylvia McNair's voice certainly has its glories, but otherwise I didn't find her bringing anything either new or nuanced to the lyrics this night. And Emily Bergl and her quirkier, acting-focused approach? Perhaps an acquired taste. As the last act of the night, with yet another medley, and incorporating a Madonna song, "Material Girl," it felt jarring to me. Addressing her last song's front-row-seated co-writer, Mike Stoller (Corky Hale's husband, by the way), and acknowledging the very recent loss of his longtime partner, Jerry Leiber, she launched into a blasť and odd version of their "Is That All There Is?" with its between-verses mini-monologues of a lifetime of disappointment. It garnered some uncomfortable titters and laughs, intended or not, but the empathy didn't register. And a song about life being a series of letdowns seemed to me an odd and unfortunate choice to end such an evening as this. But to answer the question: Is that all there is? No indeed. The Cabaret Convention continues for concerts tonight and Saturday at 6 pm. See www.MabelMercer.org for details.
COMING ATTRACTIONS: The next column in this spot will cover the Jerry Herman 80th tributes in NYC.