Annually, Donald Smith and his Mabel Mercer Foundation coordinate what is arguably cabaret's most important event: the New York Cabaret Convention, now in its 12th year. This weeklong celebration offers a chance to the public at large--and large is the word, considering that Town Hall seats 1,500--to see a smorgasbord of talent from across the city, across the country, and around the world. A boffo performance at Town Hall has jump-started any number of cabaret careers here in New York, from Australia's Judi Connelli and David Campbell to San Francisco's Paula West to our own Mark Nadler. Some say Claiborne Cary won a MAC Award several years ago on the basis of her devastating performance of "Something Cool" before the Convention's massive audience. This year, Klea Blackhurst received a huge boost. However, the Convention's singular success comes at a cost. For all the extraordinary talent that Donald Smith allows to shine on the Town Hall stage every year, there are equally talented performers who never get that spotlight.
One of the best cabaret shows we saw this year starred Lennie Watts and Scott Coulter. Watts, who can boast of five MAC nominations and a Bistro Award, told us: "My problem with the Convention is not who's in it necessarily, but what it's called. The name 'Cabaret Convention' implies that it's the ultimate gathering of cabaret performers. At an actual convention, like-minded individuals gather to exchange information, attend workshops, network, etc. The name also implies that it is all-inclusive, a convergence of cabaret artists. As a cabaret performer who has been very active and visible in the community for the last eight years, I find myself trying to explain to people why I'm not involved. I'm sure Mr. Smith has his reasons for choosing the performers that he does, and it is his right to choose whomever he pleases. It's his show. My suggestion is that the event be called 'Donald Smith and Friends.' The Convention, although it has a higher profile, is no more a representation of the entire cabaret community than the smaller gatherings produced by Jamie deRoy, Angela LaGreca, and Ron Poole."
Watts is dead on. There are scores of quality cabaret artists who seem to be perpetually beneath Smith's radar--and that's not counting the gender illusionists like Tommy Femia (Garland), Steve Brinberg (Streisand), Richard Skipper (Channing), and James Beaman (Dietrich & Bacall) who are never asked to display their award-winning talents at the Convention. This is not to say that Smith doesn't offer opportunities to up-and-comers: This year alone, the Convention stage was given to Karen Oberlin, Lynn Loosier, and Stacy Sullivan, all of whom acquitted themselves admirably. Still to come at this year's event--which continues through Sunday--are Julie Reyburn, Marcus Simeone, and Brian De Lorenzo. But, as far as we know, Smith does not employ programmers. The result is that a great many entertainers simply do not get seen and therefore aren't booked for the Convention.
Nonetheless, the importance of the event ultimately transcends its flaws. It gave us the opportunity this year to see Louise Pitre (the star of Mamma Mia!) display a complete cabaret sensibility. She commanded the stage with both her personality and her voice, singing "If You Go Away" in French after translating for the audience's benefit the actual lyric, which is even more romantically over-the-top than the English version we know. Audrey Lavine stood out with a tempestuous rendition of "Out of This World" that featured a rapturous arrangement by her accompanist, Ross Patterson. Mark Coffin was electrifying as he sang "I'm Addicted to Stress." Other standouts included Malcolm Gets' witty gay caveman number "I'm Way Ahead of My Time," Natalie Douglas' sensitive delivery of Mark Hartman's beautiful new song "Frozen in Time," and Craig Rubano's accomplishment of the impossible: He gave a fresh reading of "The Impossible Dream."
The highpoint of the Convention so far came on Tuesday night, when 85-year-old Judy Campbell made her New York stage debut. This British actress introduced "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" in the London production of New Faces of 1940. To hear her sing that song 61 years later on stage at Town Hall was a revelation: Her reading of the last line alone made us gasp and her use of a fur coat for dramatic effect was inspired. Yes, there was a sense of history coming alive with Campbell's performance, but there was show business magic as well. As one performer sighed after the show, "So, that's how it's done." Indeed. Campbell was elegant, exquisite, and her performance will be everlasting in our memories.
Campbell was part of what was supposed to be a full evening's salute to British cabaret that, in the event, merely had an English accent. Among those who did cross the Big Pond was the daffy Dillie Keane of the group Fascinating Aida, who performed her own material with true comic know-how. Also from England (okay, she's really Australian) was the thrilling Alison Jiear; we were knocked out by her vocal prowess and her comfort on stage. Speaking of comfort on stage, Donald Smith is completely delightful as he tells stories and introduces acts with humor and a sure sense of style.
Reading Lyrics was the title given to one night of the Convention. It was a celebration of the book of the same name by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball, and, on paper, it must have seemed like a great idea. Hosted by Smith and actress Marian Seldes, the show featured some of the best actors working on the American stage today: Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard, and Elizabeth Wilson, along with Seldes and the talented young actor Curtis Billings. They read lyrics from great American standards, sans music, in order to prove that these lyrics can stand alone as poetry. Then singers like KT Sullivan, Jeff Harnar, Joyce Breach, and Ann Hampton Callaway sang the same lyrics to their respective tunes. Though the actors gave incisive readings, the exercise felt repetitious. The conceit worked best when Harris read the original version of "Bill," written for a 1918 show by P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome Kern and cut, later to be revised and added to the score of Showboat. KT Sullivan lovingly performed the song as we know it. The differences, while relatively slight, were still fascinating.
Broadway performers who work in cabaret were highlighted at the Convention; we enjoyed powerful, crowd-pleasing performances from the likes of Christine Andreas, Sally Mayes, Carol Woods, and Lee Roy Reams. Christine Ebersole offered a stirring, anthem-like "42nd Street" and Donna McKechnie was winningly vulnerable and touching as she sang (and danced) "If They Could See Me Now." But Smith is continuing a practice that further defeats the purpose of the Convention, turning over half of two evenings for the presentation of complete cabaret acts. Klea Blackhurst performed her Ethel Merman show on Wednesday and, this coming Saturday, "Leading Men Don't Dance" will be resurrected. Regardless of the quality of these shows--the latter made our top ten list the year it played Rainbow & Stars--their inclusion means that many other deserving artists don't get the opportunity to sing at the Convention. Even the much-deserved Portia Nelson tribute on Monday night took up some extra time, though it boasted wonderful performances by Paul Katz, Deborah Tranelli, Teri Klausner, and Tom Andersen. Indeed, Andersen's performance of Nelson's "As I Remember Him" was so emotional that he seemed to be breaking his own heart even as tried to break ours.
As has been the case in previous years, this Convention is inevitably too long and inconsistent. But, so far, the highs have been exceptionally high and far more frequent than the lows. At the center of the cabaret solar system, the Convention continues to burn bright, giving light and life to an art form that so many of us cherish.