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Cabaret Month 2014

March is "Cabaret Month" in New York and other cities, a time for special events and turning the spotlight on the intimate nightclubs where great songs live and sometimes are born. The period is capped in Manhattan by the MAC Awards where members of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs vote for their own, in a show at BB King's in Times Square on March 27. Here are some cabaret-related CDs that came out in 2013, whose artists are nominees.


Miranda Music

Fast-rising cabaret star Marissa Mulder has been riding a skyrocket since she won the annual MetroStar competition at Manhattan's Metropolitan Room. Since then, she has won such awards as the Noël Coward Competition and the Julie Wilson Award, and performed at the Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention and numerous venues in and out of New York City. Now she's released her second album. Like her first, Illusions, it captures her live performance at the Metropolitan Room. Marissa, and particularly the Waits show, garnered nominations for her as a major singer and as the overall Show of the Year. Following her shows with mostly standards and theatre songs, and somewhat of a (mostly) lighthearted air, she's taken on the songbook of the earthy and darker Tom Waits. The live show was a major highlight of the cabaret year, and the new CD, Tom ... in His Words, reinforces the strong impression of this cabaret gal stretching her wings with increasingly evident acting skills. At the same time, she gives us a look at Waits and his sometimes down-and-out and world-weary viewpoint, through new eyes.

Mulder's palpable respect and affection for the material and the man make the sometimes distancing and mercurial muttering fellow quite accessible. And that is no easy feat. She does so without compromise or sugar-coating. The whisky is full strength and the grit is ingrained, the wink implied and not needing emphasis. She's both inside and outside the material, a woman singing a man's attitudes about being "Better Off Without a Wife" who is "sleeping 'til the crack of noon/ Midnight howling at the moon." And when the guys in the band sing along on this and other lines, it's camaraderie with a not-so-secret understanding.

The melancholy and scorn come into full view, but with a suggestion of fascination and empathy, while not necessarily jumping on the bandwagon of blues and bleakness. Irony and dark humor are the glistening light at the end of an often otherwise dark tunnel. Emotion and caring are the undercurrent, even when a character is beaten down. The classic "Rainbow Sleeves" is immensely touching and wistful. Other songs latch on to the distinctly observation scenes and tales. Incorporating some of Waits' documented comments and opinions reinforces the quirkiness and intelligence of the poet/tunesmith whose own renditions are ultra-gruff and raspy. Sung with a clearer tone, where words are far more crystallized and silvery-shivery, they are haunted but somehow emphasizing the desire under the desolation. Humanity, though bruised and battered, survives triumphantly. Interestingly, the interpreter finds new colors and perspective, rather than coming off as a watered-down poor cousin.

Remarkable arrangements by the superb and cerebral musical director/pianist Jon Weber contribute mightily, making songs into crisp scenarios that are not just mood pieces washing over us, but incident-by-incident complex playlets. It's another layer of commentary and sharp emotional snapshots. Guitarist Mike Rosengarten and bassist Ritt Henn add the balances and detail, all of them very much on the same page as teammates. Nothing is wimpy or tossed together here. Listening intently, you may find yourself almost stifling a tear and chuckle at the same time as tragedy shares the stage with glinty-eyed looks at life's odd moments.

It's clear that Waits gets to her, and she "gets" his posturing—and so he gets to us through her prism. She can be the man's bemused fan, commenting on and sharing his eccentricities and history, or "become" Tom with just a drawling "Yeah" and a sneering put-on comment. She seems to gleefully be having the time of her life trying on his persona "Since you left me, baby, you put the vice grips on my mental health." Highlights include the Eagles hit "Ol' 55" with a likeable languor mixed with a sense of wonder and the understanding of hindsight that brings silver linings to clouds. Also, "Alice" from the Robert Wilson/Waits/Kathleen Brennan theatre piece looking at the same-named Wonderland wanderer is a hypnotic adventure and series of pictures ("a frozen moon"; "skating on your name and by tracing it twice, I fell through the ice"). You can hear a pin drop and a heart sink. Marissa brings vulnerability and layered sympathy to the characters and the implied former owner of discarded "Broken Bicycles" and its metaphors, her voice almost breaking with pain and pride. Throughout the CD, that voice echoes and shimmers with fascination and feeling, with fittingly fragile beauty. But there's no gloss in her painting of the pictures to make pretty what's bleak in the cold light of day. She steps into the light—or back into the shadows. Enunciating words carefully and lovingly, like "soldier," "God," and "justice" in the deeply moving "The Day After Tomorrow," she gets a lot of meaningfulness and heartfelt power.

This is dedicated, daring work by a growing and gifted performer. Like another Waits show by another MetroStar winner/fellow MAC nominee, Billie Roe, this will bring new attention to the writer and is a triumph for singer and songs. This CD is a major event, putting Marissa Mulder in a special standing and deserving of a standing ovation.


LML Music

Studio recordings of a cabaret revue directed by Peter Napolitano (last year's MAC winner for Best Director, and nominated again this year) bring to disc the lyrics of Tom Toce. Covering a wide span of years, the pieces are collaborations with several composers and include two on which he quite ably wrote his own melodies. On this MAC-nominated album, it's especially fortuitous that they are interpreted—and truly embraced—by a talented trio of cabaret performers whose own solo shows have been quite rewarding. They are two ladies who are prior cabaret award winners with presence and increasing polish, Carole J. Bufford and Jennifer Sheehan, who are joined by Jack Donahue, who has the most recording studio experience and again shows his special sophisticated emotionalism. As a bonus, dreamy-voiced jazz star Jane Monheit (no stranger to awards, such as the Nightlife Award) is a guest singing the amorous "The Night I Fell in Love with Paris," a recent item with Toce's own tune. (The run of the live show had a rotating cast of guests shining up this gem.)

Capturing our ears immediately with the aptly titled "Listen" (melody by Zina Goldrich), the repertoire is well paced and positioned and the numbers wisely assigned to bring out strong qualities in each of the three main singers, without allowing any to be typecast as "just" a certain type. Each gets chances to be dramatic, doting, and determined in solos, and they blend especially well. Carole's feistiness is well used in two sassy songs about being glad to end a relationship, reveling in the good riddance aspect. While her live solo shows have featured plenty of powerhouse belting and bravura bluesy stuff, and she's been the go-to gal for such in past group shows, that's not suited to this lighter, poppier fare and she adjusts well and still shines without burning the torch. A mischievous quality informs some of her work here which suits Toce's playful side. In the comical "Shalom, Santa" she has grand fun with the holiday-fueled frustration of a kid whose "daddy is a lapsed Catholic" and whose "mama is a cultural Jew." For this special character piece, theatre writer Douglas J. Cohen (No Way to Treat a Lady, Children's Letters to God) shares a MAC nomination with the lyricist in this year's MAC Special Material song category.

Jennifer, who's made a mark the last several years with romantic standards, reveals a refreshing more contemporary and plucky persona with this material. Her "Say You'll Remember" (music: Peter Millrose) gets an appropriately bittersweet touch. Jack gets some of the meatiest material in three solos, connecting convincingly and compellingly with the mature looks at loneliness. In the Caribbean-flavored urging for men to learn to "Emote," the tongue-in-cheek chastising is a delight, but clearly he internalized the message long ago. The CD is a fine balance overall and pianist Matthew Martin Ward and bassist Boots Maleson nimbly adjust to (and bring out) all the styles with seeming comfort and ease.

The Toce touch with words employs varied techniques and vocabularies while remaining casually conversational and modern. But there's a nod to past generations of wordsmiths with his caring use of rhyme schemes, surprise twists, passing references to earlier standards, and satisfying verbiage: the pleading "'Say You'll Remember' so I can forget"; "Maybe staying above the fray would fly if life were a float". While not all songs are richly sprinkled with these, they are worth waiting for and relishing. That's easy to do with the inclusion of a lyric booklet, but with the fine production and enunciation and hitting-the-punchline skill sets of the singers, you won't miss words. Hopelessly in Love offers hope that sparkling revues and songcraft are not endangered species.


Singing his own songs, Steve Sieck subtly makes his mark with a MAC-nominated recording meandering through his musings and muses informing his own 21st Century Blues. Like Noël Coward's "20th Century Blues," he's commenting on malaise of the times without swimming in a deep, hard-edged blues genre (either in his likeable title song or other tracks). Going for an easygoing old-school style and mixing that with modern-day concerns and awareness that life is not a bowl of ever-sweet cherries or filled with easy answers, he's well worth the listen. Not shy to show emotion, there's still some reserve that suits the material. He has an amiable but modest singing voice, supported skillfully but not overpoweringly by backing vocals which include his own extra vocal track. He's also helped enormously by a band led by co-arranger/pianist/producer Rick Jensen, a reliably creative and sensitive familiar figure on the cabaret scene. He never lets things drag, even when the lyrics are focused on rue or regret. Additional colors are brought out by a small band, which on five tracks includes the superb guitarist Peter Calo, MAC-nominated himself this year as a sideman.

Mellow throughout, avoiding melodrama as he explores malaise and memories, Sieck is an approachable Everyman. More than a touch of wry observational humor and the low-key approach remind me of jazz wit stalwart Mose Allison in writing and singing. Cheekily referring to his penned "Complaint Letters to God" and employing colloquialisms the way Ira Gershwin did in song ideas (the catch phrase "Not That There's Anything Wrong with That" and the expression "Better Late than Never" provide song titles and points of departure. But seriousness is only inches below the surface, making this CD deepen with repeated listenings. Without making a fuss about it, he willingly jumps into emotional territory with plain speech and comfort with rhyming that rarely seems self-conscious. This is peppered just occasionally with words unusual but delightful to hear within song lyrics: paradigms; geopolitically; gyroscope; layaway; and a reference to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

"After Five" (meaning 5:00 PM) is a major highlight, owing to its being a duet with Tanya Holt in the spotlight, coming out of the back-up chorus. Her distinctive stylings imbued with sensitivity and soul enrich this look at workmates who must keep their romance under wraps. But the talents of Mr. Sieck should not be under wraps: mixing sensitivity and slyness with a relaxed presentation, the CD is a feel-good experience with some gratifying grit.


20th Century Girl Lois Morton has her own 21st century blues. This songwriter of a certain age comments on our modern age's frustrations in her own voice: grousing with spunk about Facebook, cell phones and such with much flair. Well-crafted songs are packed with detail and cleverness, sprightly use of trendy terms of technology and popping the pompous balloons of self-important foolishness. It's so highly amusing you might say she suffers fools gladly. Whether she's carping about those driving her mad with their "Road Rage" or, in "The GPS Song," turning her attention toward the vexing voice of a device that doesn't always work properly, she's never lost for a target and tickling the ear. Especially well done is "The Diet Is Cast," a litany of food restrictions that rhyme with the demanding guests invited to a dinner party she's planned. ("Anne-Marie is gluten-free," she repeats merrily as if it's a snippet from an Elizabethan madrigal.)

A live presentation of her songs, featuring herself and a top-notch roster of cabaret artists is nominated this year for Outstanding Revue. However, here she sings everything herself, aided only on the final track, "Stay a Little Longer," by kin Amy Morton Deaver. It's one of the few serious-minded numbers among the agile LOL romps and respites from the frivolity that show her more pensive and emotional sides. On slower ballads, Lois' voice is fragile, but feelings and tart attitudes come through strongly.

- Rob Lester

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