The Cabaret Convention put on by the Mabel Mercer Foundation has for almost three decades brought together some of the best cabaret performers in the country, each of four days presenting as many as 20 singers, some prominent, some new, some doing standards, others jazz, to keep the tradition alive. Dozens appeared over four evenings; these are just my highlights. I notice that most are women. Well, so be it! They had the most pizzazz, the most drama.
There were 70 singers telling stories to music, swinging to jazz beats, crooning emotion and trilling high notes at the annual Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention. In four days at the Rose Theatre, dedicated by Lincoln Center to jazz, you could hear performers as young as 15 and as old as 88 present stunning new and veteran talents – in fact, the special thing about cabaret is that it has no age limits.
In a velvet ankle-length gown, white gloves and white fur stole, the signature gardenia over one ear, Bonita Brisker glitters like the rhinestones on her costume. “What a little moonlight will do…” she channels Billie Holiday, her songs, her life. “Greetings FBI” to the government thugs who harassed her. She reminds the audience that she “cut a man for putting hands on me wrong.” And Count Basie fired her. And then, “Them their eyes!” It’s a masterful performance that brings Billie to life.
Bobby Nesbitt’s tribute to the cabaret greats of Las Vegas is much richer than any medley of songs from the star singers of the time. His performance at the Tennessee Williams Theatre reprises the iconic tunes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and more. But he also offers some social history that sets “the Rat Pack” – the name given by actress Lauren Bacall –in an American context. (She said, “You look like a goddam rat pack.”)
In this stunning artistic and feminist biography of Elizabeth I, Karen Coonrod tells us what most of us never knew about that 16th-century British monarch. She was first of all very, very smart, in politics. She was also studied and intelligent, poetic in her speaking and writing, and a polyglot – we hear her speak Italian, Spanish, German. She was subtle, but tough when it mattered. From Coonrod’s plays, built from Elizabeth’letters, speeches, poems, and prayers, you feel you are meeting an amazing woman!
The play starts with four gold high ladder-backed chairs set within a red rectangle painted on a black floor.Four woman arrive, in steel gray or silver or black gowns. There’s a background noise like radio interference, or is it a mob?
Jazzy tunes reached the best notes at the annual New York Cabaret Convention sponsored by the Mabel Mercer Foundation, whose artistic director KT Sullivan is a major cabaret singer herself. This was the 26th, and over four evenings it brought major American singers to Town Hall. There were about 60 performers. I was there the last three nights, October 14-16, 2015, and attempt here to acknowledge the best.
When Julie Reyburn sings, you think you are at a theater stage. Her rich soprano last night entranced an audience at her “Fate is Kind,” a show of mostly kids’ songs for adults. I liked her charming take on Frank Loesser’s “The Ugly Duckling.”
I was glad, as it turned out, that not all “kids’ songs” are for kids, especially when they are “On the Steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. Reyburn is a tuneful theatrical Sondheim interpreter.
Her performance was happily accompanied by the jazzy piano of music director Mark Janus.
Nathalie Schmidt is a French cabaret singer – and a playwright and screenwriter, theater and film director, artist and actress in plays by Shakespeare, Racine, Sartre and other European classics. A full creative life.
You see a lot of that talent in her cabaret show, “Forgotten Lovers,” at the Metropolitan Room. Certainly, her acting enriches a partly comic, partly cynical take on life. As a singer, she hits the right high notes, and she often sounds like Piaf. She’s a personality that the New York cabaret scene needs.
My favorite in Charlotte Patton’s show at the Metropolitan Room was “Quality Time,” a satirical piece by Dave Frishberg (1996) that fits today, as she tells us about a guy telling his wife that, “We’re up to our ears in our careers and putting our hearts on hold,” so they need quality time. He says, “I know a small hotel remote and quiet, if they decide to sell my firm could buy it, then we’d develop it and gentrify it.”
That said, the songs in this charming production are of a piece – not mushy or sad, but upbeat and smart.
The very fine Broadway and cabaret singer Christine Andreas channels Edith Piaf in an elegant, sharp, charming dance production choreographed by Pascal Rioult, a former Martha Graham Dance Company principal dancer.
The space is a cabaret/dinner theater space at the 42West Nightclub. Tables are set around a center runway and look at a proscenium stage. Andreas in gamine hairdo, black glittery silk dress, looks (a bit) and sounds like Piaf, her trills and tremors.
Rosemary Loar is a major cabaret singer, throaty, breathy, with drama in her strong torch-song voice. In a white lace tunic over a short purples dress, black tights and boots, she is edgy. Some of the stories she tells are dark, and she makes them come alive. Her cabaret is almost theater.
A jazzy glorious sound fills the living room of the Harry Truman Little White House, in Key West, where the 33rd president took winter vacations, playing poker with his buddies. It comes from the rich, luscious voice of Miriam Pico and the fine jazz piano of David Chown. A few times a month, cabaret takes over the building built in 1884 where Truman spent some winter weeks and which is now called Truman’s Little White House. The living room, except for the intimate collection of a few dozen round tables, is at it was then. The cabaret shows that take place there are appropriate, since Truman was a piano player.
It’s 1948, the tenth birthday of Café Society, where great jazz and cabaret in a corner of Greenwich Village clashed with the worst know-nothings of the McCarthy era. But we’re over that now, so come to this musical memoir to enjoy the delicious sounds of the 30s and 40s. And recall how evil the thought police of that era were. The club became a target of slimy columnists such as Dorothy Kilgallen, who called it a “Moscow-line nightclub.” It was the only place that welcomed whites and blacks, certainly enough to make Mme Kilgallen call it subversive.
Indeed, Barney Josephson was a lefty. So? He put money into integrated housing. He used to joke that the Café was “the wrong place for the right people.” Even Eleanor Roosevelt showed up.
Between the rock and roll of the sixties and the disco of late seventies stood the golden age of the great singer-song writer. Urban Stages, in its sixth season of December cabaret, this year presented twelve days of performances that ranged from the songs of Stephen Sondheim to a tribune to Big Crosby. The performers were major cabaret artists.
Wrapped in a white gown, an iconic white gardenia in her hair, Audra McDonald channels Billie Holiday — her voice, her accent, her manner — till you believe you are sitting in the slightly tacky Philadelphia dive where Holiday sang her last songs. “What a little moonlight can do” becomes a magical mood changer. It’s helped by the dreamlike direction of Lonny Price.
One great –McDonald — sings another great, Lady Day. Her imitation is brilliant. She has mastered Holiday’s accent, a slight trill, a broad vowel. Lady Day did blues with a jazz beat, following mentors Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
Cabaret singer/song-writer Bonnie Lee Sanders is fanciful and moody. She begins rather optimistically at the second-floor cabaret at Pescatore on Second Avenue singing “Spring is Here,” but then moves into musical angst, of loves that are gone.
She creates an ambiance with songs you haven’t heard before. They are dark, sometimes French. Of course, you note a Piaff inspiration.
Sanders is inventive, not slick or predictable. I especially liked her “My Tommy, My Bobby And Me” and “Broadway Moon” – both her own smart lyrics
Dee Dee Bridgewater is an accomplished jazz singer who recreates Billie Holliday so expertly you’d swear she had channeled her. Musically. But the play written and directed by Stephen Stahl is so hokey and histrionic that it gets in the way of the artistry. Stahl has been working on this production and trying to bring it to New York for years, decades. But perhaps his emotional connection overwhelmed his artistic sense.
The play shows Billie in London where her manager (a too-laid-back David Ayers) is trying to steer her sober as she rehearses with a band for a bet-the-house performance to salvage her reputation so she can return to work in New York.
Marieann Meringolo’s rich mellow slightly jazzy alto voice presents Michel Legrand’s romantically charged music with almost theatrical intensity. Legrand, famous for music for such films as “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, “”The Thomas Crown Affair,” and “Yentl,” needs someone like Meringolo to provide the necessary drama to his muse.
I saw Maureen McGovern at Birdland, the iconic jazz club on West 44th Street in New York. It always amazes me to hear her smooth mix of jazzy, a soupçon of folk, and lyrics that are as smartly political as they get. These are not the standards you might expect at a cabaret. At 61, McGovern channels the 60s and 70s, and her rendition of the Beatles “When I’m 64” is the best I’ve ever heard. She presents an ethereal version of “Up, Up and Away” (“Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon.”) She also conveys a feminist idiom: “A woman is a fighter, a mighty force of nature.” On the folk side of the era, this very versatile performer does a powerful “If I Had a Hammer” (“The Hammer Song”), noting that “Pete Seeger has always been a hero of mine.” And McGovern has long been a favorite of mine.
Songs of love, loss and war shimmer in this witty cabaret By Lucy Komisar This charming, poignant, elegantly staged theater piece of love-and-loss songs envelopes one so completely that you feel as if you’d wandered into a Paris cabaret instead of the slightly seedy Zipper Theater, where the lobby bar and cozy corners establish a […]