Richard Rodgers -- and More -- at the Convention
Beloved veterans and newer stars shine during the latter part of NYC's 13th Annual Cabaret Convention.
In our continuing coverage of New York's 13th Annual Cabaret Convention at Town Hall, we pick up on the fourth day of this seven day musical extravaganza devoted to the Great American Songbook -- and to the people who are, in turn, devoted to the greatest music of the 20th century. Of course, in this year of Richard Rodgers' 100th birthday, no musical event of stature could avoid paying tribute to that pillar of the Great American Songbook (and his two most famous lyricists, Oscar Hammerstein II and Lorenz Hart). So Donald Smith and the Mabel Mercer Foundation, which presents the Cabaret Convention, celebrated Rodgers with three nights of music devoted to his creations.
If the shows were uneven, with the first and third having a musical theater bent that was noticeably stronger than the jazzier middle evening, as a whole they represented an engaging and eclectic testament to Rodgers' genius. It was the wonderful conceit of these three shows to bring back Broadway and West End stars of yesteryear to recreate some of their most memorable Richard Rodgers' related moments. Here are just some of the highlights, followed by our report on the Convention's finale starring Karen Akers, Christine Andreas, Karen Mason, and KT Sullivan.
Thursday: Some Enchanted Evenings, Part I
We arrived late and missed the show's first song, a group number. It would prove to be the only moment of the Convention that we would not see. This first evening of the Rodgers clambake was presided over by the composer's daughter Mary Rodgers Guettel. Her presence gave the entire three-day event that ineffable glow of official sanction, but better still, she was an affable and entertaining host.
What made this particular night special was a palpable sense of a musical tradition being passed from generation to generation. The Town Hall stage was aglow with nostalgia as the oftentimes frail but always gallant stars of yesterday returned to the spotlight: they were Constance Towers (The King and I with Yul Brynner), Patricia Morison (The King and I with Yul Brynner), and Celeste Holm (the original Ado Annie in Oklahoma!). In addition, creative collaborators who worked with Rodgers brought their recollections to the stage, including lyricist Martin Charnin (Two By Two and I Remember Mama) and Sheldon Harnick (Rex).
Brent Barrett, who sang "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" (Oklahoma!), is a Broadway star of today who could have played the lead in the original productions of any number of Rodgers's musicals. The same holds true for soprano Lisa Vroman; she would have been a natural for most any Rodgers & Hammerstein show, particularly The Sound of Music, from which she sang on Thursday night. But the evening also featured some of cabaret's most winning performers -- and it's in cabaret, in between theatrical productions, that the music of Richard Rodgers is revived, revered, and reinterpreted most every night of the week. Tom Andersen lent his sweet tenor to "Ten Minutes Ago," Julie Reyburn performed a powerhouse version of "Do I Hear a Waltz?" and Klea Blackhurst brought down the house with her extraordinary whistling prowess in "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and her belting in "Johnny One Note." Jim Caruso and Johnny Rogers duetted on a sweetly swinging rendition of "I Like to Recognize the Tune" -- which was ironic because, on the following night of the Convention, this was precisely what too many of the jazz artists on the bill made it impossible to do...
Friday: Some Enchanted Evenings, Part II
Among the handful of high points on this generally sub-par Convention night were the performances of Mary Foster Conklin, Sally Mayes, Sandy Stewart with Bill Charlap, Joyce Breach, and Phillip Officer. They all brought sincerity to their work, coupled with musical integrity. Most of all, though, they interpreted their lyrics with care and understanding. Rather than dwell on the many negative aspects of the show, let's move right on to...
Saturday: Some Enchanted Evenings, Part III
Connections to the past were very much in evidence again on this night. Heather MacRae's shared memories of her father starring in the movie version of Oklahoma!, which was filmed in Arizona; she told her family visited her dad on location and she recalled riding in the actual "Surrey With the Fringe on Top." Then, to a mesmerized audience, she sang the song of that title. Walter Willison (who starred with Danny Kaye in Two By Two) and Nancy Dussault (who replaced Mary Martin in The Sound of Music) had stories to tell and songs to sing, as well. But the biggest hit of the evening was the 78-year-old Julie Wilson, who replaced Martin in the original West End production of South Pacific. She came out in a sailor suit and sang a spectacularly rousing rendition of "Honey Bun," then brought the crowd to its feet when she concluded the number by throwing her sailor hat out into the audience.
The evening was awash in stellar performances. Scott Coulter dazzled with his soaring tenor and his hilarious patter about growing up in the South as a musical theater freak. Mark Nadler energized the audience at the very start of the show with his unique combination of piano playing, singing, and tap-dancing (all at the same time); he would have stopped the show, except for the fact that he had just started it. Mary Cleere Haran performed "Way Out West (on West End Avenue)" with panache and Craig Rubano put the romantic cap on the evening with a lush "My Romance."
Sunday: Four Women of Song
The last show of the Convention offered a smartly assembled quartet of divas. Each of the women in this grand finale brought something entirely different to the Town Hall stage: KT Sullivan demonstrated her flair for musical comedy; Karen Akers delivered as a classy international chanteuse; Karen Mason offered her brassy belt; and Christine Andreas proved to be a surprisingly sassy Broadway soprano. Each performer had half-an-hour to make her mark, and all of them talked little and sang a lot to take best advantage of their time.
Sullivan's deliciously devious rendition of Ervin Drake's English lyrics for "Tico Tico" has been refined to perfection since we last heard her perform it years ago at the Oak Room. It was part of her show Ladies of the Silver Screen, which she is reviving thanks to the recent release of her CD of the same name. Her half-hour was devoted to famous singing screen actresses, including Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis, both whom were part of her sensational set at Town Hall.
Andreas's portion of the show was similar to KT's insofar as her half-hour was also devoted to famous female singers, but hers were from the world of Broadway. Having less time than usual to set up her transitions from one icon to the next, she was nonetheless impressive (and not a little nervy) in taking on the likes of Ethel Merman and Barbra Streisand. This is pretty swampy territory for a soprano, but Andreas was on safer ground when she tackled Julie Andrews and Mary Martin. Though a warm, pretty, elegant, and sweet-voiced performer like this one has no business singing Merman's "Some People" (from Gypsy), you had to admire the way Andreas threw herself into the song and bit into the lyric.
Mason could have simply planted her feet, belted to the back row, and wowed the crowd with her passionate voice. A thrilling singer when she gets all wound up, she can also interpret a lyric with heartbreaking sensitivity, as she did when offering a plaintive "How Long Has This Been Going On?" (by the Gershwins) and a riveting, emotionally compelling combination of "Help" (Lennon/McCartney) and "Being Alive" (Stephen Sondheim).
As for Karen Akers, though she had not been part of the three-day Richard Rodgers celebration that ended the night before, she entertained the audience with a little known Rodgers and Hart comedy tune called "Queen Elizabeth." Though much of her program consisted of French song (sung both in English and French), she touched the audience with "They Were You" and "Try to Remember" from The Fantasticks (Schmidt/Jones). There's no doubt in our minds that we will remember this most special of shows, not to mention one of the most consistently entertaining Cabaret Conventions we've ever attended.
[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]