New York's cabaret clubs teem with a particularly rich variety of acts in the days and weeks immediately before, during, and after the Cabaret Convention. With so much happening, we thought we'd give you a glimpse at three of the most intriguing late-night shows we caught during Convention week.
From the entertainers' point of view, cabaret is about communicating the unique nature of one's personality...and there is hardly a more unique personality to be enountered than that of Joseph Go Mahan. With a shaved head and heavy makeup, adorned in something that approximated women's clothing (or at least something that a modern-day Marlene Dietrich might wear), Mahan created quite an eye-popping figure on stage at Judy*s Chelsea. His look was enhanced by Michael Barbieri's lighting. While his apperance grabs your attention, it's his talent that holds it: Mahan puts more passion into his music than Elizabeth Taylor adds to her perfume. No wonder, then, that he is such a strong interpreter of Jacques Brel's music; his rendition of Brel's "Amsterdam" could not have been more emotionally "in the moment."
Mahan attacks every song with originality. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't; he put a fresh and insightful twist on "Eleanor Rigby" but he painted himself into a corner with "Corner of the Sky." Be that as it may, you have to admire this audacious entertainer for his imaginative risk-taking. Even when he fails, he does it with more panache than most cabaret artists exhibit when they're getting it right. This fellow isn't going to appeal to everybody; he has a spiritual side that will put some folks off even as it entices others. His patter sometimes rambles, but when he gets into a groove he can be as eloquent as he is funny. And when he puts aside the patter to sing, you're treated to a trilling and thrilling tenor. In the hands of a smart, strong director, Mahan could really go, go, go.
Performing a new edition of her Glorious Gals act, Atlanta club-owner/performer Libby Whittemore displayed an appealing showmanship at Danny's Skylight Room. We simply had to catch her act after we saw her sidesplitting Connie Francis sendup at Town Hall during the Convention. Whittemore displayed a malleable voice in her tribute to the likes of Brenda Lee, Rosemary Clooney, Judy Garland, and Petula Clark. She rarely attempted to mimic the voices of her favorites; rather, she tried (and usually succeeded) to evoke their vocal styles. She was at her best with the Southern gals like Lee, Skeeter Davis, and Patsy Cline. But the real revelation was her own personality: Whittemore is simply great fun to be with. Her patter might have been written but it felt utterly natural and unrehearsed yet entertaining, always leading to the next number with a graceful economy. From a bright and funny rendition of "All Alone Am I" to a bouncy, swinging "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart," Whittemore turned out to be a glorious performer. In the bargain, she brought her gifted musical director/pianist Robert Strickland to our attention.
Another discovery out of the Cabaret Convention was Karen Oberlin. We saw her two-song set at Town Hall and made it a point to catch her Doris Day tribute act Secret Love at the FireBird. A gifted writer and performer, Oberlin has put together an exceptionally well-crafted show. She tells Miss Day's story with just the right tone of self-aware obsession, so that we can both share her fascination with her subject and laugh at it. Bearing a slight physical resemblance to Day and possessing an even stronger vocal similarity, Oberlin here proves to be a talented interpreter of Day's songs, scoring particularly well with ballads like "I'll Never Stop Loving You," "Sentimental Journey," and "Yes," adding her own set of comic lyrics to the Roy Alfred/Frank Comstock winner "I'd Rather Be With You." An extremely enjoyable evening.