By Lucy Komisar
This annual series by the Mabel Mercer Foundation presents a selection from among the most talented and interesting established and new cabaret singers in the U.S. And occasionally a few from abroad. People attend as if it were an annual family event. And indeed, at intermission and after the show, the singers come out to the large entrance hall to hang out and chat with the cabaret community.
“Speak Low: The Songs of Kurt Weill”
The bittersweet music of Kurt Weill is a testament to the German composer’s brilliance across multiple styles. Weill is best known for his collaborations with the playwright Bertolt Brecht in 1920s Berlin, producing provocative works of social commentary like “The Threepenny Opera.” But he also found success on Broadway and in Hollywood after escaping the Nazis.
Andrea Marcovicci, the grande dame of cabaret, shimmered in a glittery gown, singing “One Life to Live” with her trademark verve and passion. Clint Holmes brought a smooth, jazzy flair to “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” his rich baritone evoking the mournful drama of the song.
Dawn Derow’s syrupy soprano soared sweetly on “My Ship” from the 1941 musical “Lady in the Dark.” You could imagine her on the stage of a Broadway theater, channeling Gertrude Lawrence’s original portrayal.
Therese Lee was elegant and charming in a red sequin jacket, her rich soprano imbuing “This Is New” with a sense of discovery. A relative newcomer, Madalynn Mathews earned a well-deserved Julie Wilson Award for her astonishing vocal range on the torch song “Stay Well,” her hair cascading down a shimmering black and silver dress. Marieann Meringolo told a tale of quiet sadness and fierce protest with her sweet, rich interpretation of “Love Song.”
But the highlight of the evening belonged to Ute Lemper in her songs of “The Threepenny Opera,” Brecht’s twist on John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera.” The jazzy, discordant strains of the “Moritat von Mackie Messer” (Mack the Knife) evoked the seedy criminal underworld. The statuesque blonde chanteuse sank into the harrowing despair of “Pirate Jenny,” delivering the 1928 Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht ballad in haunting German. Conveying the poetic sorrow of “Pirate Jenny,” a woman fantasizing dark justice while working at a seedy hotel, her voice swirling with the fog and soot of the London docks.
Minda Larsen and Danny Bacher turned “Mack the Knife” into a fabulous fusion of Larsen’s jazzy soprano and Bacher’s saxophone. Ute Lemper returned in a plum, glittering gown to give “Speak Low” an almost R&B sensuality, purring through the jazz standard with smoky elegance. Maude Maggart’s soaring soprano swelled with romance on “It Never Was You,” her black and white glittery gown shimmering under the stage lights. “Beautiful,” murmured an audience member behind me.
Weill fled Nazi Germany in 1933 for Paris, then settled in New York City in 1935. his trans-Atlantic sophistication, the smoky swing of “Surabaya Johnny,” Weill’s nod to jazz.
Karen Akers wrung every ounce of heartbreak from “Surabaya Johnny,” crying out in German about a sailor with no heart yet her endless love. Overcome with emotion, she embodied the song’s sorrow. Jeff Harnar’s brilliant patter song cheerfully recounted the 39 seconds of Russian brilliant composers’ names that helped make Danny Kaye a star in “Lady in the Dark.” I loved the fact that his ode to great Russian composers was not “cancelled” by the crazy Russophobic times we are living in. Cheers to you Jeff! And the Moipei Triplets from Kenya closed the show with their gorgeous, 1940s-style harmonies on “Here I’ll Stay.”
“Sentimental Journey: The Music of Doris Day”
This was focused on one person, a singer, who I never thought of as a cabaret performer. But there was some complexity.
MC Rex Reed provided background on Doris Day’s life and career – her dreams of being a dancer dashed by a car accident that left her bedridden for two years, singing in a honky tonk before being discovered in LA by Al Levy. Her rise from supper club singer to movie star epitomized the sunny, wholesome fake charm of the 1950s.
Maude Hixson evokes a smoky piano bar with her jazzy renditions of “Shanghai” and “It’s Magic.” Nicholas King puts a crooner’s spin on “Day by Day,” with some scatting that Day herself didn’t do. His glittering charisma gives the tune a jazzy pop. Linda Purl captures Doris Day’s breezy crooner style in “Sentimental Journey.”
Tom Wopat joins Purl for a delightful duet on “There Once Was A Man,” their voices intertwining sweetly. Wopat solos on “A New Town Is a Blues Town,” oozing easy charm. Marilyn Maye sparkles in blue singing “With a Song In My Heart,” nailing that brassy, swinging style.
Young Seth Sikes surprises with a smooth southern-tinged baritone on “Lullaby of Broadway,” putting a fresh spin on the classic and showing he’s a rising cabaret star. Karen Oberlin in slinky black and silver honors “Secret Love” with torchy jazz style. She’s been doing Day tributes for 20 years.
Reed slyly notes Day’s dislike of her signature tune, “Que Será Será,” and gets the audience to sing it. (“What will be will be.”)
Heather McRae, daughter of Day’s frequent co-star Gordon MacRae, shares family anecdotes about “Dodo and Gordo.” She channels her father on “I Only Have Eyes for You” and her mother on a perky “Tea for Two.”
After intermission, Karen Oberlin returns with a nostalgic “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and Marilyn Maye slays with a bluesy “Blues in the Night,” putting a sultry New Orleans spin on the tune and proving she still has pipes at 95.
Deborah Silver is charming on “Ten Cents a Dance” in a green glitter gown. She and Wopat recreate the film musical magic in a dreamy “They Say It’s Wonderful.” Silver closes act one as a jazzy, swinging torch singer on “Love Me or Leave Me.”
The ladies and gents of the cast capture Doris Day’s sunny style while making the songs their own. Reed’s biographical anecdotes and family tales add color. The snazzy big band arrangements swing, but also highlight the singers’ emotional interpretations. Sprinkled among classics are less expected tunes, keeping the songbook fresh.
“As Time Goes By: the classics of the American songbook”
KT Sullivan, artistic director of the Cabaret Convention, in her signature hat (almost as famous as Bella’s), elegantly channels the romantic yearning of “Hello Young Lovers.” Lianne Marie Dobbs demands attention with a fiery “You’re Gonna Hear From Me,” announcing a new talent. Nicole Zuraitis sings a lovely, melancholy “If Ever I Would Leave You” at the piano, her sunny soprano shining.
Jonathan Karrant puts a fast, jazzy spin on “No Moon at All” with impressive scatting, a young crooner nailing old-school jazz. Eric Yves Garcia’s emotional “All the Way” displays his own depth as a crooner, his piano underscoring heartfelt phrasing that reimagines the classic. Fresh-faced Anais Reno impresses with a youthful but torchy “Lover Man,” her blue gown matching the melancholy.
Billy Stritch delights with a medley from “Singin’ in the Rain” and other MGM musicals. Carole J. Bufford channels a chanteuse in red singing “Put the Blame on Mame,” her jazzy swagger perfect for the sultry tune. Big band veteran Alexis Cole sparkles in a glittery gown, scatting up a storm on “Come Back to Me” with brass blaring behind her.
Eric Comstock creates an intimate piano bar vibe with a sophisticated “Mam’selle.” Barbara Fasano’s soprano lends class to “In the Still of the Night.” She and Comstock make an infectiously fun jazz duo on “As Long as I Live.”
Todd Murray’s deep, silky baritone caresses the classic “Stardust.” One can imagine him fronting a big band at the Cotton Club. Sofia Tosello charms with “A Day in the Life of a Fool” in Portuguese, her lilting soprano elegant against jazzy guitar. Gary Williams swings breezily on “Isn’t It a Lovely Day,” Irving Berlin at his sunniest.
Josephine Sanges soars on “My Man,” earning cheers. Aisha de Haas adds jazz inflection and rich color to a languid “As Time Goes By,” closing the show with a nod to its inspiration.
The cast of the three nights traverses jazz, big band, torch songs and musical theater with panache. KT Sullivan sets the nostalgic tone as hostess, the songs transporting us back to the golden age of American standards. Some add modern flair with scatting and improvisation while others honor straightforward vintage interpretations. Glittering gowns and dapper suits evoke bygone eras. Most of all, world-class singing makes the familiar fresh again. A splendid evening reminiscent of the Great American Songbook’s enduring magic.
The Cabaret Convention, Mabel Mercer Foundation at Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway & 60th Street, NYC. Oct 17, 18, 19, 2023.