KT Sullivan
KT Sullivan
Women may constitute the largest percentage of vocalists in cabaret, but what is gender except a label? The only label that really matters is that good old union label: that is, the union of talent and ambition that makes a performer a winner.

KT Sullivan has just opened at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, performing the music of Harold Arlen. Combining pithy patter and sensational songs, she and her director Hope Hardcastle have put together a show very much in the sophisticated style of Andrea Marcovicci and Mary Cleere Haran. Of course, Sullivan brings her own spin to the formula, but it all starts with interesting information that is served up with a sly sense of humor. Delicate in ballads like "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe" (lyrics by E.Y. Harburg) and kittenish in numbers like "A Woman's Prerogative" (lyrics by Johnny Mercer), Sullivan is a veritable rotisserie of versatility.

The Oak Room is a tough venue for any entertainer to play, but Sullivan does a good job of turning left and right to face the two largest sections of the room. Nonetheless, from where we were sitting, we had to bob and weave our heads in order to get glimpses of her. Had we not caught Sullivan in a similar Arlen show about a year and a half ago at the now defunct Julie Wilson Room, we would not be able to say we had actually seen this show at the Oak Room; we could have only told you that we had heard it. However, we can assure you that Sullivan acts these wonderful Arlen songs with an expressiveness that almost makes it feel as though the composer wrote them with her in mind. She is ably abetted by pianist/singer Larry Woodard. Their show, titled Let's Fall in Love, runs through April 12.

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For pure excitement -- not to mention free cookies, coffee mugs, and possibly even a mango -- there is the electric Loli Marquez-Sterling's show at Don't Tell Mama. Somehow, this performer managed to fit onto the small stage at Mama's a band that looked like it could fill a Broadway orchestra pit, pre-strike! The structure of the show is amiably loose, but the fierce energy of Loli's performance is never less than galvanizing.

The performance is driven by the dynamic of Loli's mixed heritage: She's a Cubano from New Hampshire. Unlike most American immigrants, she did not grow up in a ghetto surrounded by her own people. An outsider who refused to blend in, she comes across on stage as both touchingly wounded and brazenly bigger-than-life; thank God she's a talented ball of fire, or that mix would be intolerable.

Director Linda Amiel Burns has pointed Loli in the right direction, helping her to move toward a success that would seem to be unique. There really is no one else in cabaret like Loli Marquez-Sterling. Her appeal is indicated by some of her song titles, such as the all-inclusive "No One is Alone in This Carnival" and the extraordinarily moving "Only in Miami is Cuba So Far Away." She is really quite special, so keep an eye out for her next appearance.

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Morag McLaren
Morag McLaren
Speaking of fish out of water: Consider Morag McLaren, the musical comedy lox from Scotland. Why lox? Because she's smokin'! Like Loli, one is inclined to refer to this entertainer by her first name. Morag is a successful working actress from London's West End who is not so much a breath of fresh air as she is a comedic cyclone.

During her most recent trip to New York, she put on a series of shows at Don't Tell Mama that sent up the very concept of an autobiographical act. For instance, she traded on her early intention to become an opera star, providing a hilarious tour of the various sorts of sopranos she might have become. This was one of many set pieces, all of them well written and performed at full tilt -- with the emphasis on "tilt." Deliciously cracked, Morag McLaren has a musical comedy sensibility that is enriched by her strong voice and elastic body. She does a sort of drunken dance at one point in the show that will make you spit up your beer.

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For lo these many months, the FireBird Café has been featuring Chris Barrett at the piano. We've stopped in quite often and enjoyed Mr. Barrett's lush piano stylings as well as his warm and romantic vocals. This is a piano bar where patrons are quiet because they want to hear every note.

Barrett has been both gracious and smart over the last couple of months, inviting guest performers to sing in a featured "Spotlight" set every Wednesday night. Most of those moments have gone to fabulous women of every stripe, such as Marnie Baumer, Karen Kohler, and Ludmilla Ilieva. Baumer is a belter with a sensitive streak; Kohler is a stylish dramatic entertainer in the European tradition of cabaret; Ilieva is that rare soprano who moves comfortably between musical idioms as disparate as opera, Broadway, and country western, and she sounds authentic and exciting in each and every one of them. The distinct talents of these three performers speak to the almost limitless variety of gifted female vocalists who are so much a part of New York nightlife.