Thirteen years ago, Donald Smith had a brilliant idea. He figured out a formula by which The Great American Songbook could be preserved, presented, and popularized. That idea, brought to fruition through his Mabel Mercer Foundation, was the Cabaret Convention.
Smith's master plan was stunningly simple: Sell quality goods at bargain basement prices. At the Convention, audiences get to sample the greatest nightclub entertainment on earth for a fraction of what it would cost to see these entertainers do their shows elsewhere. On top of that, Smith also offers volume discounts in terms of the length of the shows. An average cabaret act is one hour long, whereas any individual Cabaret Convention evening that ran much under three hours would generally be considered short. When Smith asked the audience for a vote of confidence in these lengthy shows earlier this week, he received cheers of support. And we agree. No show is short enough when it's bad, but no show is long enough when there are highlights galore -- as is the case with this year's Cabaret Convention.
In past years, we have written about some of the Convention's flaws. Many of these have been addressed and corrected; for example, the Convention no longer seems dominated by a relative handful of favored performers who used to appear almost every other night during this weeklong event. Now, when it comes to offering variety, Kelloggs has nothing on Donald Smith. Also, during the past several years, the Convention unwisely gave entire halves of some evenings to individual entertainers to present their solo shows -- but not this year. As a result, more singers are getting a shot at building their fan base by performing in front of the 1,500 people who attend each Convention show at The Town Hall.
On our wish list for changes not yet made is a return of the always-wonderful ASCAP nights that used to be produced by Michael Kerker. And, as we continue to note every year, we hope someday that the Convention will include some of cabaret's most popular and talented gender illusionists -- e.g., Tommy Femia (Judy Garland), Steven Brinberg (Barbra Streisand), Richard Skipper (Carol Channing), and James Beaman (Lauren Bacall).
Donald Smith, Bar Mitzvah Boy
Tovah Feldshuh started things off on Monday the 21st by celebrating the Cabaret Convention's Bar Mitzvah: In its 13 years, the Convention has, indeed, grown up. With fast, economical staging and bright, clear sound, the shows have thrown off the burden of shoddy technical support -- and Smith, himself, has ripened into a peach of a performer. In the early years of the Convention, he was rather awkward and uncomfortable on stage; now, the audience looks forward to his every trip to the podium. Smith's major contribution to cabaret has always been his introduction of new talent like David Campbell and Judi Connelli (both from Australia), Paula West (from San Francisco), etc. This year, he's presenting a great many new faces and voices.
The folks on hand from Chicago particularly impressed these critics. Among the windy city standouts (so far) are Colleen McHugh, who milked every last drop of comedy out of "The Last Song" (Goldrich/Heisler). Another Chicagoan, Patty Morabito, performed a haunting version of "In the Still of the Night" that featured a dramatic arrangement by her musical director, Dan Stetzel. Justin Hayford, a singer-pianist, came across as the Steve Ross of the next generation, offering a twist of wit in the tune "You're Awful" plus a lovely, gently sentimental ballad from Sesame Street called "When Burt's Not Here."
At this writing we are just approaching the halfway point in the 13th Annual New York Cabaret Convention. Let's take a look at the most fascinating and/or memorable moments of its first three nights:
Mark Coffin continues to take chances. A daring performer, he didn't quite grab the audience with "You're Clear Out of This World" and "Lost in the Stars." (He might simply have performed too close to the top of the show to really score.) Claiborne Cary, on the other hand, was clear out of this world in a costume that placed her somewhere between Queen Dracula and Ming the Merciless. That high camp look enhanced her performance of a parody rendition of "My Funny Valentine" (with clever new lyrics by Jack Wrangler) but got in the way of her dramatic rendition of Billy Barnes's "Something Cool."
The audience deservedly adored Christine Ebersole's rendition of "Bill" (Kern-Wodehouse-Hammerstein), sung as an ode to her husband of the same name. She followed up with a "Lullaby of Broadway" that just might have been definitive. Jeff Harnar proved why he is a Convention perennial with his playful yet thrilling 1950's rock 'n' roll version of "Be My Love." Filling in for Amanda McBroom, who bowed out due to a conflicting job on the West Coast, Andrea Marcovicci was nimble in "Let's Not Talk About Love." And, speaking of nimble, jazz pianist Barbara Carroll was a wow playing Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Zingaro."
The Convention's opening night was particularly strong, as it often is. Among the highlights were a theatrically powerful performance by Natalie Gamsu, a romantic turn by Lee Lessack, and the work of a woman from Australia named Melissa Langton. Though rough around the edges, Langton had the spark of a worthy young talent.
Tuesday night was a spiky affair with fewer high points. Marcovicci hosted an evening called "Cabaret Americana" with her usual charm. The eclectic mix of talents -- presumably an All-American grouping (no Brits, no Australians) -- included the warm and wonderful Jeanne MacDonald, the endearingly delicate Maureen Kelly Stewart, and the ever-classy Marlene Ver Planck. Perhaps the most versatile performer of the night was Michael McAssey, who put over Rick Crom's hilarious number "Denial" in high style and then turned on a dime and offered a lush rendition of "My Favorite Year." Jazz artist Laurie Krauz was never better than she was on this night. Karen Saunders scored by relating the true and compelling love story of composer Ervin Drake and his wife Edith; oddly, Saunders then sang "Come Rain or Come Shine," which Drake did not write. The biggest hit of the evening was Sandra Reaves-Phillips, who stopped the show with "Unchained Melody."
Wednesday night of the Convention was a triumph for several women of color. Anika Noni Rose and Lumiri Tubo rightfully received sustained applause from an appreciative audience. BJ Crosby, dressed in a purple, Dr. Seuss-like hat and a colorful circus-like outfit to match it, received the convention's only standing ovation (so far) when, despite a bad head cold, she movingly sang about all the people she's known who have died too young during these last 30 years. Among the other particularly strong performers were Lynn Loosier and Johnny Rogers, the latter offering two appealing new compositions of his own and thereby proving that one need not present familiar material to do well at the Convention.
During the course of these first three nights of the Cabaret Convention, Donald Smith began ambushing performers on stage with Mabel Mercer Foundation awards. Awkward at first, the manner in which the awards were given was quickly rethought and improved soon thereafter. Among those who received citations were Sidney Myer, Andrea Marcovicci, and Forrest Perrin. When all is said and done, however, it is the Convention that should be cited for its contribution to the art form.
Continued coverage of the 13th Annual Cabaret Convention, including three nights devoted to the work of Richard Rodgers, will be offered in our next column. For more information on the event, visit the website www.mabelmercer.org.
[More reviews by the Siegels can be found at www.cabarethotlineonline.com. For information on the First Annual Nightlife Awards, to be co-presented by Scott Siegel in January at The Town Hall, click here]