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.”)
Following their 2013 Drama Desk nominated “Le Jazz Hot: How the French Saved Jazz,” the brothers Peter and Will Anderson are back with another video and music show, this one about jazz greats Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Featured in “Le Jazz Hot,” Ellington was one of America‘s black jazz musicians who went to France beginning in the 1920s, because the French were a lot more hospitable to them than were Americans.
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.
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
There was Karen Oberlin, a favorite, and Cary Hoffman, who has joined my list of favorites. Some well-known, others who ought to be, they appeared –15 of them – at a performance of Urban Stages‘ “Winter Rhythms,” among the best deals around for cabaret and jazz lovers. The theme was Sinatra at the Movies.
It was the fifth year of a benefit to support Urban Stages‘ outreach to schools, libraries and seniors.
It‘s getting to be a lesser-kept secret, but twin brothers Peter and Will Anderson are back at 59E59 Street Theaters for a multimedia jazz band performance, this one called “Le Jazz Hot: How the French Saved Jazz.”
A mix of old video and terrific live playing by their quintet, it is devoted to the stories and sounds of some of America‘s great black jazz musicians who went to France beginning in the 1920s, because the French were a lot more hospitable to them than were Americans, including American cops. Some are famous, but others you might not know about.
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.
I saw jazz pianist Ramon Valle at the A-Trane in Berlin. He bills himself as “The Other Face of Cuban Jazz.” He and the members of his trio are Cubans, but they don’t play with the Latin rhythm we might expect. This Cuban jazz is modern jazz performed by Cubans.
The Gerald Clayton Sextet suffused the sultry Nice air with cool melodic jazz. Logan Richardson on sax did trills, and Thomas Crane on drums hit cymbals that matched Clayton‘s piano‘s high notes. Joe Sanders‘ bass maintained the mood.
This was classic jazz, a bit of swing, and everything had a resolution. The musicians are sophisticated New Yorkers. There were no screeches or wails to assault the ears or the senses.
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 soupÃ§on 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.
Doo-Wop will never go out of style in Las Vegas By Lucy Komisar She arrives in a cloud of smoke in a glittery pink and purple pants suit and long evening coat. She has great charm, charisma and boundless energy. She also has a powerful, eloquent voice. And she is the star performer at the […]