There is one week every year when cabaret-lovers can dive into an ocean of their favorite music and float on its deep and undulating waves. We're talking about the annual Cabaret Convention at Town Hall, where last week the 11th edition of this glorious event took place. Presented by The Mabel Mercer Foundation and its president, Donald Smith, the convention offered a wide array of performers from all over the country and, indeed, the world in shows that each lasted three hours, every day for a week. In other words, there was no shortage of talent. The only shortage was that of tickets; Town Hall, which seats 1,500 people, was sold out every night.
Each show was completely different. Some simply presented a wide of array of talent without any particular theme, others were dedicated to famous names like the recently deceased Anne Francine, Johnny Mercer, and Mabel Mercer herself. Rather than report on the convention on a day-by-day basis, we've divvied up the week in our own way to highlight the best and worst of what we saw and heard. But first, a general comment: Donald Smith, who hosted the event, seemed to blossom this year as an entertainer in his own right. In the past, he has been an avuncular presence who passed on information to the audience; but now, for the first time he shared funny anecdotes in abundance. Smith charmed the audience, thereby setting a warm and enveloping tone for the performances that followed.
It fell to Karen Akers to open the convention, and she did so elegantly and with panache; but this was not the strongest evening in the series, either in terms of quality or star power. Rather, it was the ASCAP night, devoted to the music of Johnny Mercer, that stood out. That night offered Karen Mason as host and Tom Andersen showing yet another side of his talents as a gifted Mercer interpreter, plus Margaret Whiting as special guest and Barry Manilow as the surprise celebrity. The most touching moment came when Whiting sang "Moon River" to Manilow, who had long ago been her pianist. Manilow himself capped the evening with his heartfelt performances of "South Wind" and "When October Goes," both of which have Mercer lyrics and Manilow melodies. Carol Hall received the Mercer Songwriting Award and joined the talented pool of previous winners gathered on stage; among them were Craig Carnelia, Steven Lutvak, and John Bucchino.
Scattered throughout the rest of the convention were stars like Tovah Feldshuh, Brent Barrett, Marcia Lewis, Steve Ross, KT Sullivan, Polly Bergen, and Lee Roy Reams. Of course, no cabaret convention would be complete without Andrea Marcovicci, who dominated the last two days with her charm and talent. She performed her Kurt Weill show virtually in its entirety, giving 1,500 rapt audience members the opportunity to see it before its unveiling at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room later this year.
But star status didn't always translate into great work at the convention. Ann Hampton Callaway offered more technique than feeling in her brief appearance, and Christine Andreas probably has no idea that her "Storybook" from The Scarlet Pimpernel (which she performed in the show on Broadway) is a faint shadow of cabaret star Tom Andersen's electric version of the song. On the other hand, Karen Mason put over a theatrically thrilling rendition of Mercer's "I Want to Be Around" (to pick up the pieces); Lee Roy Reams offered an emotional tribute to the late Gwen Verdon; the tall, handsome Brent Barrett acted and sang his two numbers with total assurance; and Phillip Officer let go with what may be the definitive version of "Heart and Soul."
Stars in the Making
What the Cabaret Convention does best is to offer up less-well-known talent along with the big names, so that the people who pack Town Hall can discover new stars. Here are some of the singers who hit pay dirt in their two song allotments: Mark Coffin sang two Johnny Mercer selections, including a high-flying "Skylark" with only a bass accompaniment. Bold, risky, and stylish to the hilt, he wowed the crowd and these critics. Abe Reybold, a striking leading-man type, took a chance by singing two unknown songs by an up-and-coming composer-lyricist, and he made a lasting impression. So, too, did Audrey Lavine, who demonstrated extraordinary vocal versatility coupled with interpretive skill in her numbers. Craig Rubano also caused a stir, as did Jack Donahue and Tom Michael. The last of these, incidentally, was one of three different singers over the course of the convention to perform "This Nearly Was Mine." All of them did it differently, and all of them did it well.
They Can't All Be Winners
In a convention of this size and scope, there are inevitably going to be flops. It's one thing when a talented entertainer doesn't click on a particular night, but it's quite another thing when a performer doesn't appear to have a clue. James Alexander, a seventeen-year-old from London, proved to be an embarrassment as he massacred Sondheim's "Losing My Mind" by screwing up the lyrics. As for style, the piano stool had more than he did. Why Alexander was asked to perform on opening night--or any night--of the convention is a mystery to us.
Less offensively, Joan Ryan displayed a big, powerful voice but did not connect to the lyrics of the songs she sang in any meaningful way; she was just showing off. And Michele Brourman indulged in some fancy footwork at the piano bench but sang in a weird, affected, Kathleen Turner-inspired accent.
Made in Australia
Ever since the extraordinary Australian Judi Connelli stopped the convention in its tracks a number of years ago with her Mandy Patinkin-like theatrical showmanship and talent, there has been a steady stream of Aussies to Town Hall. David Campbell continued the tradition, as did Tim Draxl after him. This year, there were so many Australians that they could have had a convention of their own.
We were distraught that the only two half-shows we missed, the Monday and Friday second acts, were the two times Connelli performed at the convention this year. One of those performances was with her partner on this tour, opera diva Suzanne Johnston. But we did not miss their compatriots: Rhonda Burchmore, Annie Frances, Kane Alexander, and Toni Lamond.
Frances was the recipient of the Sydney Cabaret Convention First Prize, which included the opportunity to perform in New York's Cabaret Convention. More polished patter would have helped her, as she teetered on the edge of self-absorption, but she did display a strong set of pipes and the knowledge of how to use them. The more seasoned Burchmore made an even better impression. And Kane Alexander (one of the other singers who performed "This Nearly Was Mine") was an immediate hit; he is a star-in-the-making who appears to be picking up where David Campbell left off. Then there was old pro Toni Lamond performing a lighthearted, goofy medley that delighted the audience. At one point, she sang a few bars of Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" and cracked: "Who wrote this?" The audience laughed lightly in response, perhaps not realizing that Reddy is Lamond's sister!
More in evidence this year than in the past, comedy played a big part at the convention. Sydney Myer killed with "Good Advice" in what was arguably the funniest performance of the entire week. Georga Osborne did a gypsy number that had folks on the floor, while Sammy Goldstein tickled the audience pink with "Pink Fish." Tovah Feldshuh offered character humor, including a turn as Tallulah from her current Off-Broadway show, Tallulah, Hallelujah! Angela LaGreca put over Rick Crom's brilliant "Denial," and Klea Blackhurst stopped the show with a comic turn that involved everything from a ukulele to a horn.
The Cabaret Convention's grand finale on Sunday afternoon was so strong that, when Steve Ross came out to perform, he remarked to the audience: "I love working a hot stage." It was, in fact, a hot week.