A Night At and After the MAC Awards
20th Annual Awards for MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs): April 17, 2006

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.

Miles Phillips and Phoebe Snow
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.

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 restless.

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."

And ...

Ricky Ritzel
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!

Karen Mason and Bety Buckley
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!")

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."

Clark Terry
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 should be."

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 tight category."

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 it."

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 great Broadway."

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

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