Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Conventional Wisdom

It's been a mad, mad, mad, mad world here, darlings, so it's taken us this long to regroup, catch our breath, and catch you up to speed. We've been running to and fro and hither and yon about town, taking in everything from the good (Broadway's splendid revivals of You Can't Take it with You and On the Town), the bad (off-Broadway's revival of Sticks and Bones) and the ugly (a final dress rehearsal of A Delicate Balance...all we can say is, Close, but no cigar). We even had time to walk a red carpet or two:

TJB in the paparazzi's glare

Thus, we are regrettably belated in relaying to you some of the highlights of the most exciting event we've been a part of thus far this season: the Mabel Mercer Foundation's 25th Annual Cabaret Convention. We were fortunate enough to see three out of four of the programs presented, and the diversity of the artists and material suggests that the cabaret format -- perhaps unfairly perceived as being rather narrow and limited -- not only is much broader than many think, but also has a lot of youthful vigor being injected into it.

Liam Forde

This influx of young talent onto the cabaret scene was best illustrated by the opening night's theme, "I Love a Piano," a celebration of the wonderful singer-pianists who tickle the ivories while simultaneously tugging on the heartstrings. The bill, hosted by 29-year-old jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein --yes, we were scratching our heads, too -- was top-heavy with handsome young men (veteran pianist/chanteuse Daryl Sherman, one of the few female performers, joked about being surrounded by so many hot guys). The standout among these lads was the likably manic Liam Forde, who closed the show with a razzle-dazzle version of Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting's "Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?" and was joined by equally young and enthusiastic friends for a rousing tribute to Kay Thompson. Two hot, young Broadway composers, Steven Lutvak (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder) and Jason Robert Brown (The Bridges of Madison County) were decided crowd pleasers, the former slaying with the wonderful comedy number "The Dinner Party" (aka, "We Were Bagel Makers to the Czar") and the latter giving a delightful preview of the opening number of his upcoming show, Honeymoon in Vegas, which shook the room with retro-Rat Pack swagger.

Charles Cochran

That being said, the true standouts of the lengthy evening were the legends and the classicists. The Grande Dame of the Cabaret Piano, ever-elegant Barbara Carroll, strode out onto the stage as if she owned it, played a beautiful arrangement of Bernstein's "Lonely Town," and then switched moods and tempos effortlessly as she accompanied herself and sang a deliciously husky, near-parlando "Who Cares?" by the Gershwins. Charles Cochran, a fixture on the scene since the 1960's, gave one of the evening's finest and most sensitive performances, imbuing "You Stepped Out of a Dream" (introduced by Tony Martin in the 1941 film, Ziegfeld Girl) and Vernon Duke's flawless "Autumn in New York" with a worldly -- but never world-weary -- elegance which transported us to a dimly lit, chic little boîte, perhaps downtown, perhaps on West 52nd St., where we would listen to such sophisticated tunes over "cocktails for two." One of the last rooms in town which can compare to those bygone days is Bemelman's Bar at the Carlyle; their current pianist, Loston Harris, treated us to beautifully smooth renditions of "How About You?" and "I'm Old Fashioned" in a fine example of the kind of elegant singing and playing he purveys within those plush walls. 

Eric Yves Garcia (Photo: Russ Weatherford)

That same elegant atmosphere was beautifully conjured by Alex Leonard, a young man heretofore unknown to us, who performed a wonderfully evocative self-penned number appropriately titled "Intimate Nights," inspired by the terrific book of the same name by James Gavin. The dapper, mustachioed (as per the New York Times) Eric Yves Garcia is another standard-bearer in both senses of the word, carrying the torch for the Great American Songbook and all of the class and elegance its presentation deserves. Garcia opened his set with a fantastic, swinging rendition of "Lose That Long Face" from A Star is Born (1954), and is perhaps the only male performer we can think of who is able to perform a Judy Garland number without seeming, at best, arch. It was an inspired and entertaining choice. And, like Mr. Leonard, proving that the Great American Songwriting tradition has not completely died out, Garcia proceeded to introduce a brand new entry into the "saloon song" genre called "For Losers Only," written by Billy Carlucci and Ray Errol Fox. It was a masterful performance of a remarkable song -- remarkable in that it never sounded like a contrived pastiche of the material which obviously inspired it (Sinatra's "Only the Lonely," Tormé's "Welcome to the Club," Denis' "Angel Eyes," et al.); masterful in the depth of feeling in Garcia's extraordinarily mature delivery of the lyric. Our vote for the best vocal performance of the night.

The Queen of Cabaret: Julie Wilson, as she appeared in the 1950's at the Maisonette at the St. Regis and the Persian Room at the Plaza

The second night of the convention was a very special occasion: the 90th birthday of the undisputed Queen of Cabaret, the indestructible Miss Julie Wilson. As she watched from her seat of honor, La Wilson was feted by an eclectic parade of performers, ranging from veterans like Christine Andreas and Ann Hampton Callaway (who demonstrated her lightning-quick wit and sharp mind by making up lyrics on the spot for a tribute song to Julie, based on recommended words shouted out from the audience) to current Broadway talent like Chicago's Amra-Faye Wright and T. Oliver Reid of the criminally-shuttered After Midnight. A new crop of cabaret artists was well-represented, of course, most compellingly by sultry, siren-ish Shana Farr, performing a sizzling version of Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" in a come-hither fashion of which Julie most surely approved; and Corinna Sowers Adler, who did a bang-up job on Victor Herbert's delightfully demented "Art is Calling for Me (The Prima Donna Song)." Speaking of delightfully demented, the endearingly unhinged Wayne Hosford was rip-roaringly funny as he tore through a completely insane medley comprised of snippets of 40-plus tunes with women's names in the title, including, of course, Julie's. 

Marilyn Maye, accompanied by Billy Stritch

Carol Woods, a protégée and friend of the late, great Margaret Whiting, closed the celebration with the bawdy "Don't Ask a Lady" and the oft-performed, but always effective "Here's to Life," demonstrating the communicative and interpretive skills she learned from her mentor. And on a program designed to celebrate a legend, the marvelous Marilyn Maye, as has become custom, demonstrated her own legendary status as she took to the stage and took no prisoners. La Maye's rendition of "I'm Still Here," also strongly connected with Julie Wilson, earlier brought down the house and earned a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall on the occasion of Stephen Sondheim's 80's birthday; she repeated the same trick on Julie's 90th, earning the only standing ovation of the night. And yet, throughout, Maye still managed to keep the focus squarely on the evening's honoree: grandeur and graciousness, all in one magnificent package.

Jennifer Sheehan

If the opening night of the convention was a boys' club, then the third night, "Something Sort of Grandish" -- showcasing the music, together and separately, of composer Burton Lane and lyricist Yip Harburg -- was definitely ladies' night. Beginning with the ebullient Gabrielle Stravelli, who opened the show with a full-throated, and never-imitative "I Could Go On Singing" (the title song to Judy Garland's final film) before segueing to a beguilingly sexy "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow, the evening was chock-full of glorious vocals from the distaff side, both veteran and fledgling. On the latter side of the ledger, Jennifer Sheehan combined girl-next-door youthfulness with Rita Hayworth-esque glamour; her voice was exquisite on both "Here's to Your Illusions" (a near-forgotten gem introduced by Barbara Cook in 1951's Flahooley) and the classic "Look to the Rainbow." It was no wonder that she was presented with the evening's Donald J. Smith Award, and surely no one was more deserving.

Iris Williams OBE

Continuing to wave the banner for the female voice divine, Christine Andreas made an unannounced appearance and gave possibly the best, most personal performance we've ever heard emerge from her throat: "What Did I Have That I Don't Have" from On a Clear Day. It was a complete surprise to see and hear her so unvarnished and raw. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, but no less effective, the unflappably regal Karen Akers and Iris Williams (OBE, if you please) wove hypnotic spells with their performances. Akers cleverly interpolated "It's Time for a Love Song" with a wry, knowing "Fun to Be Fooled," while Williams serenely transported us from a nippy autumn in New York to "April in Paris." And, lest you think that the men were completely underrepresented, the always delightful, always wonderful Billy Stritch opened the Second Act with a slam-bang "Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here," and then was joined by his partner in song and crime, Jim Caruso, who performed his signature, slowed-down take on "If I Only Had a Brain" from The Wizard of Oz. Also ably representing the Y chromosome was the eternally boyish Jeff Harnar (co-host of the evening, along with Andrea Marcovicci), who tore up one of our favorite barnstorming Sixties musical showstoppers, "Come Back to Me." But it was a lady on the stage who appropriately brought the show to its exultant close: Natalie Douglas, who performed a meltingly beautiful "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe," rang the rafters with "Satan's Li'l Lamb," and then led the entire cast and audience in a singalong of, appropriately enough, "Over the Rainbow."

Eric Yves Garcia, Debbi Bush Whiting, and TJB

So there you have it, darlings, our personal highlights of three nights filled with fabulous song, beautiful people (see above), and lots of fun and laughter. Thank you, Mabel Mercer Foundation, for 25 years of promotion, preservation, and perseverance, all in the name of that most quintessentially New York of art forms, cabaret. 


  1. Soooooooo jealous! Sounds like a wonderful set of evenings!

  2. Marvelous post! I'm in a whirl!
    Thank you and you look fabulous darling

  3. How utterly fantabulosa, sweetie - a true diva celebrates a "Diva Week"!

    I'm not in the slightest bit envious. At all. Honest. Jx

  4. It was terrific, and even nicer to make personal connections with some of the performers I admire.

  5. Yes, wonderful recap, but it reminded me yet again that I saw the jaw-droppingly spectacular After Midnight only once and I'm still kicking myself about it. After being overwhelmed by the show from third row orchestra on the aisle (overwhelmed by Fantasia, the sets, the costumes, the performances, and oh my god that dancing), I thought to myself, "Oh, this show'll run forever!" Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

    1. I hear you. I had tickets to see Gladys Knight and Natalie Cole later in the summer, but then they announced the closing, so I scrambled to get tickets for the final performance (with Patti LaBelle). I was floored by how good it was, and completely disheartened that it was being shuttered so soon.