Interview with
The West Coast Cabaret Convention

by Jonathan Frank

Here I sit on a plane headed home, still glowing from what was a magical week at the Third West Coast Cabaret Convention in San Francisco. The party may be over (and what a swell party it was), but the melodies definitely linger on. The Convention was held at the Ira & Leonore S. Gershwin Theater from June 5th through the 11th and featured close to 90 performers. The cast list for the event reads not only as a 'who's who' of cabaret, but of theater as well, with stars from each art-form's past, present, and future participating.

Now some of you may be wondering what exactly is a 'Cabaret Convention.' The phrase certainly conjures up images of performers in silly hats, learning the secret handshake needed to gain entrance into the nicer clubs, and going to lectures on "The Perfect Medley," "Patter: When Enough is Enough," and "Cabaret Performers who Make a Living at it; Fact or Fiction." It also implies an event for performers only, which is the farthest thing from the truth.

Instead, the Cabaret Conventions provide a unique opportunity for audiences and performers alike to witness a variety of vocalists from around the world singing music that is no longer played on television, rarely on radio, but oddly enough, sells very well when performed in films. They are put on by the Mabel Mercer Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting cabaret and the popular American Songbook, and doing so in the name of one of its most legendary performers. The Mabel Mercer Foundation was established in 1985, and since then has put on ten conventions in New York, three in San Francisco and several in Sydney and London. They have also produced centennial celebration concerts for composers such as Kurt Weill, Cole Porter and Noel Coward.

The Mabel Mercer Foundation is headed by Executive Producer Donald Smith, who was Mabel Mercer's friend and publicist, and who is tireless in his pursuit in keeping cabaret and the American Songbook alive and available to audiences who crave this form of entertainment. This summer Donald, along with Rick Meadows who served as Production Stage Manager for the event and Alyce Finell who was the all around organizational goddess, returned to San Francisco after an absence of three years, to produce the third Cabaret Convention in that city.

At the last convention, I was an audience member and it was an incredible experience. Not only was it entertaining, but it provided an incomparable training experience for me. Where else can one see roughly ninety performers over the course of a week, who combined have won every award imaginable? Where else can one see legends from stage and screen perform, and talk about the roles that made them famous? Where else can one experience the thrill of the unexpected star-turn by somebody you had never heard of before? Where else can you see mistakes made by both the great and the just starting out, and learn what to do and avoid yourself? Where else can you get all of this for $20 a night??? This year I got to be a participant as well and the experience was no less magical.

Many of us cabaret performers only know each other by reputation or through our respective CDs, as we perform all over the place and often have conflicting performance schedules. The Cabaret Conventions give us a chance to not only see each other perform, but to get to know each other on a personal level as well (and Lord, you should see the business cards flying backstage and at the parties!). Cabaret folk are probably the friendliest and most helpful of performers, and the event really did have a "summer camp" feel as people bonded, gossiped, traded tips, addresses, and contacts, swapped war stories or just hung out together.

The really wonderful thing about the Conventions is that this feeling of camaraderie exists between audience members and the performers as well. Many of the people who come to these events buy tickets for all seven days of performances (personally, I think a "Cabaret Purple Heart" needs to be devised for these stalwart souls). And since most of the performers attend at least one of the shows as an audience member, it is an excellent way for audience members to get to know the performers and vice versa. After a cabaret performance, we usually have a limited time to meet and greet the audience (usually because there is another performer getting ready to start shortly thereafter), and thus we only get a brief chance to say a few words and thank them for attending before moving on to another person. It can take years to develop the rapport with 'fans' that a five-minute chat every day for a week at the convention achieves. And as Julie Wilson commented, "The audience is why we do this. We give them our hearts, and they are kind enough to return them." I treasure the connections I made on the other side of the footlights as much as the ones on 'my' side, and it was wonderful to get to know each other as people, rather than 'audience' or 'performer.'

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Well, enough philosophy! I'm sure you want to know who was there, what they sang and what they were wearing. At the end of the column, I am going to list all of the performers, since for space limitations it is just not possible to mention every one of the ninety or so performers (I think Ann would kill me if this became the Cabaret Column equivalent of Les Miserables!). Now this is just a partial list of the highlights; the first draft of this column ran close to ten pages long! With ninety performers, you can be sure that there was a heck of a lot of talent on the Gershwin stage, so please realize that I'm only mentioning some of the highlights.

Karen Akers: Anybody who thinks that cabaret performers don't act has got to come see this woman perform. At the pre-opening gala at Gump's, Karen sang the definitive version of "Stars and the Moon," showing why this song needs to be sung by a woman who is of an age to have actually lived through the choices, instead of the thirty-something performers who usually sing it.

Lisa Asher: A total surprise. I had never heard of her, and she was sensational! Great set up for a killer of a song, which I think was called "Dead Egyptian Blues." She's at Arci's in New York on June 17, 24, and 30.

Klea Blackhurst: She burst on stage with a ukulele and nobody knew what to expect. What we got was a perfectly hysterical performer who sang "Mountain Greenery" like it was an old fashioned uke song, then followed it up with a song about a yodeling Swiss girl who moved to Mexico. She sings, plays the ukulele and the trumpet, yodels, whistles and gives great about a triple(X2) threat!

Chris Calloway: Daughter of Cab and niece of Blanche (who was the first female bandleader - I didn't know that!). Gave a great rendition of "Blues in the Night," and her aunt's signature song, "Growlin' Day."

Tovah Feldshuh: Ties with Georga Osborne for being the funniest person at the convention. She's currently working on a show about Tallulah Bankhead which is headed for Off-Broadway. Based on her performance here, it should be well worth seeing.

Rita Gardner: The original 'Girl' from The Fantasticks still has it, and should be cast in Follies and quick. She would be perfect as Sally. Her renditions of songs from The Fantasticks were only matched by her stories of her life in show-biz.

Andrea Marcovicci: The one performer who could probably sing the phone book and make you cry closed the Convention with a mini-concert of her Our Songs show in which she sang songs as far removed from her normal fare as possible: Beatles, "Feelin' Groovy" and "Downtown."

Sharon McNight: Killer energy (she quipped that she took amphetamines to get the energy up to do Betty Hutton's "Square in a Social Circle"), and also great with "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows"

Rita Moreno: In a dress cut down to there (and up to here!), she wowed us all with "Brazil" (complete with jungle sounds).

Liliane Montevcchi: A delight as always. She had to change one of her songs an hour before her performance, as she discovered that Marti Stevens was singing it as well (in the car driving to the sound check no less!) Glad she got to sing "Si Vous Aimez les Poitrines" instead.

Georga Osborne: One of the funniest people at the convention. I don't know which was funnier, her "Gypsy" medley that included Carmen, "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," and "Everything's Coming up Roses," or her rendition of "Maria" from The Sound of Music,, in which she only sang the lines from the two nuns she got to play on tour.

Lee Roy Reams: I nearly died when he started his salute to Sweet Charity (he was the "Spanish boy" on Broadway) with "Hey Big Spender," complete with undulations (hard to do in a tux!).

Steve Ross: The quintessential poster-boy for sophisticated champagne cabaret closed Friday night's Cole Porter salute (June 9th is Cole's Birthday, you know). Nobody is wittier in performance than Steve, and he actually shocked us all by singing a rather suggestive number at the Gump's party concerning the sex lives of dolphins! (On a personal note ... he called me a 'sensualist!' Can you believe that? I'm not sure what that means, but the thought of it is enough to make me choke on the cannoli I smuggled from Victoria's Pastry Shop at North Beach! So forgive me while I take a break to get the Lemone D'Oro out of my carry on to wash it down)

Clark Sterling: Only performer to use props (maracas) and a dance break on "Gypsy in Me." Truly enjoyable.

KT Sullivan: Performed the three theme nights of the convention, sang at the Gump's Gala, at two brunches, and her own solo show, making her the hardest working performer at the convention. She also was the most delightful, with her shimmering rendition of "Wunderbar" and a hysterical salute to Jeanette MacDonald and Marlene Dietrich.

Stacy Sullivan: The only performer to make me mist up, with a song written by her sister, Heather, and dedicated to her other sister, KT. Her CD is incredible. Buy it.

Wesla Whitfield: San Francisco's own brought down the house each time she performed, and for good reason. There is nobody who infuses lyrics with a light jazz sensibility better than Wesla, as her version of "My Ship" proves.

Julie Wilson: The embodiment of cabaret and, as Donald Smith mentioned, a woman who needs to be declared a living treasure. On Tuesday she sang a salute to Sondheim and was absolutely incredible (the producers of the Follies revival better cast her and quick ... is there anybody else out there who not only has the experience for "I'm Still Here" but can also sing the hell out of it?) Her rendition of "Could I Leave You" was scathing and still haunts me. Friday she saluted Cole Porter with equal passion.

As I said, this list is by no means complete. All the performers were great to watch, and the convention was a huge success. Many thanks to Donald Smith, Rick Meadows, and Alyce Finell for a job well done. The New York Convention will be held at Town Hall on October 16th through the 22nd. Be on the lookout, as these events are not to be missed, and thus sell out early!

List of performers:

Monday, June 5th: S'Wonderful! Celebrating the Lyrics of Ira Gershwin

Karen Akers, Val Diamond, Jeff Harnar, Ruth Hastings, Marcia Lewis, Karen Mason, Willis Moore, Kim Nalley, Christian Nova, Spider Saloff, Billy Stritch, KT Sullivan, Paula West, Wesla Whitfield, Ronny Whyte

Tuesday, June 6th, Cabaret Caravan

Opie Bellas, Klea Blackhurst, Sylvie Braitman, Claiborne Cary, Helene Davis, Jonathan Frank, Cory Jamison, Jana Keeler, Phillip Officer, Teri Lynn Paul, Lisa Peers, Abe Reybold, Julie Wilson

Wednesday, June 7th: Jazz in San Francisco

Judy Barnett, Chris Calloway, Mary Foster Conklin, Baby Jane Dexter, Larry Dunlap, Barbara Linn, Jenna Mammina, Jacqui Naylor, Morning Nichols, Bobbe Norris, Denise Perrier, Billy Philadelphia, Sherri Roberts, Jackie Ryan, Daryl Sherman

Thursday, June 8th: Cabaret Cavalcade

Lisa Asher, Aaron Lee Battle, Maye Cavallaro, Bill Cooper, Anne Kerry Ford, Rita Garnder, Julia Hunt, Shane Kelly, Meg Mackay, Rita Moreno, Sidney Myer, Darlene Popovic, Cybill Shepherd, Dane Vannatter

Friday, June 9th: Swell Party - A Birthday Celebration of Cole Porter

Joyce Breach, Charles Cermele, Jeff Harnar, Celeste Holm, Liliane Montevecchi, Claudia Newberry, Steve Ross, Clark Sterling, Marti Stevens, KT Sullivan, Paula West, Julie Wilson

Saturday, June 10th: Cabaret Goes to the Movies

Tovah Feldhshuh, Jeff Harnar, Shauna Hicks, Celeste Holm, Jane A. Johnston, Marilynn Lovell Matz, Sharon McNight, Peisha McPhee, Peter Mintun, Lanie Nelson, Robert Osborne, Lee Roy Reams, KT Sullivan

Sunday, June 11th: Grand Finale

Barbara Brussell, Shelly Cullin, Lee Lessack, Andrea Marcovicci, Susannah Mars, Pam Munter, Joanne O' Brien, Georga Osborne, Joan Ryan, Stacy Sullivan, Lumiri Tubo, Faith Winthrop

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