by Rob Lester
It called the Cabaret Convention, but it sometimes felt like something else, if you tend to think of "cabaret" in the strictest, more traditional definition of the genre. It's often described as intimate singing or storytelling through song as heard in a small, sophisticated boîte with the emphasis on emotionally communicating the treasured lyric. There was still an abundance of that approach after the opening night, as previously reviewed, when that seemed to be the rule. But the next two nights of the 22nd annual series, October 21 and 22, felt like a mix of that and other styles: jazzier excursions, musical theatre, grand concertizing, brassier nightclub entertainment, a little comedy and a little commentary, even an
The overall highlight of the three nights began in the middle of the middle night, as KT Sullivan led a warm and informative tribute to one of the Great American Songbook's most ardent supporters and longtime practitioners, singer Margaret Whiting, who passed away in the last year. We heard her early hits as well as quality latter-day songs she was quick to find, champion, and record: "The Lies of Handsome Men" by Francesca Blumenthal delivered by insight and pathos by KT; Amanda McBroom wistfully recalling "My Favorite Year" (lyrics by Karen Gottlieb, music by Michelle Brourman, the latter at the piano, as she is for the McBroom McBroom Metropolitan Room engagement currently in mid-run). Joyce Breach, offering a folksy story of a singer who resembled Whiting from her home town of Pittsburgh, brought the 1000-plus crowd to hushed attention with the delicate "Not Exactly Paris" by Mickey Leonard and Russell George. Stylish singer-pianist Ronny Whyte chose melodies by Jerome Kern, who was close to Whiting in her youth (she called him "Uncle Jerry"). Bringing the segment to a dazzling finale, separately and then together (combining their considerable forces and voices with "Love Is Here to Stay") were mega-watt torchbearer Marilyn Maye and Ann Hampton Callaway, the latter creating an on-the-spot Margaret tribute song at
Contrastingly, the Friday night event got off to a low-key start which threatened to make me think they'd changed the name of the event to The Vibrato Festival or that they'd hired a musical director named Lew Gubrious. First-act guest host Andrea Marcovicci opened with a favorite song of much-missed Donald Smith, usual host and president of the sponsoring Mabel Mercer Foundation who is recuperating from surgery. It was "On Such a Night as This" (Hugh Martin/ Marshall Barer from an unproduced musical), sung with graciousness but uneven musicality as she traipsed across the stage, bending down in her accustomed manner to address front row patrons. Then came Elena Bennett, standing stock still as if weighted down by misery, singing a weary, teary medley at a gloomy snail's pace with a harsh and wide vibrato on held notes. Giving credit where it's due, Andrea was at her best later in the program, focused and vocally stronger, melding two classic laments with engaging theatricality, "Say It Isn't So" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." The latter was an example of what occasionally happens in the Convention: a song reappearing over the three nights. Sandy Stewart had had her dignified way with "Smoke" on opening night; "My Funny Valentine," heard instrumentally by pianist Barbara Carroll on opening night, was featured in an effective and dramatic segment from the Rodgers & Hart act, with earnestly impactful singing narration and singing from Stefanie Powers. "The Best Is Yet to Come," was presented by Broadway's married couple Jenny Powers and Matt Cavenaugh, as well as Natalie Douglas, in very different styles. However, it was not the stronger selection for either act when they tried to find a new way to breathe life into it. The breezy blast of optimism needs no CPR, stretching out or coiled dance of seduction for two. Natalie was more impressive sticking with the more involving, riveting Nina Simone territory she's victoriously claimed. Cavenaugh and Powers were more interesting as they intertwined the standard "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)" with something from another generation, Matchbox 20's "Bent."
In what is somewhat of a happy hodgepodge embracing various kinds of presentations that have been welcomed into cabaret rooms, we had the Chicago duo act of Tom Michael and Beckie Menzie (she's also their pianist) veering with their smiley "Sing, Sing, Sing" toward that kind of force-fed perky ice-breaker style that borders on loungey gloss. Coming on after an intermission on closing night, the ice had been long broken. Their musical skills were better served by a thoughtful treatment of West Side Story's classic, "Somewhere." Anna Bergman added opera with an aria from La Bohème. Carol Fredette brought some jazz touches with mixed results that took a while to cook. At such multi-performer concerts where some singers are new to some of the audience, and where almost everyone gets only two turns at bat, it's important to come out swinging. I don't mean that in the jazz sense, but just making a strong impression and grabbing an audience, which is tough to do with a sad or stationery piece. Hilary Kole and her jazz band included their take on a number we're used to hearing in a quick and assertive tempo and slowed it way down, embellishing the original lyric a bit, too. It was "Come Back to Me," about to come back to Broadway in the revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (which, as a show, is being rethought quite a bit, too). Languid longing replaced fervor, an interesting experiment, but I'm not so sure it worked. It's a track from her next album, and I have a feeling it might work better on CD as a slow-burner, or a mid-concert change of pace, but she was placed as the last night's opener. And the final act of the three-evening scrapbook was its youngest participant: having turned 20 this summer, the nifty Nicolas King has three Broadway shows under his belt and a belting, swinging voice.
The presentation and acceptance of special awards of recognition, with accompanying foundation checks, have become part of the concerts. Jennifer Sheehan won her third award in a couple of years (after noting her accomplishments, announcer Amanda McBroom joked, "And she's also very young and beautiful, so let's kill her now"). Nancy Anderson, with roles in Noel Coward shows among her considerable credits, accepted the prize from the competition I sat in on earlier this year, and she dazzled once again with her treatments of Coward songs, her soprano shimmering. She was aglow personally and in character, too, garnering a strong ovation. The Julie Wilson Award, named for the cabaret veteran who so supportively attends cabaret shows of up-and-comers, was presented by the lady herself, decked in her trademark feather boa and flower in her hair, and it went to T. Oliver Reid. He was the 2010 winner of the annual summer-long singing competition, the MetroStar Talent Challenge, where I've had the pleasure of serving as a permanent judge, seeing the contenders grow each week and then do their own full-length shows. He and third-place finalist Amy Beth Williams were standouts on the big stage at this year's Convention concerts, demonstrating the skills they've mastered and more than holding their own among the career cabaret artists on the bill. And this year's winner and second runner-up, Marissa Mulder and Fran Leonardis, respectively, will be part of the Cabaret Cares benefit for young people with HIV on Tuesday at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on West 42nd Street, along with Doreen Montalvo (In the Heights) and the award-winning singers Laurie Krauz and Susan Winter.