This review first appeared at bistroawards.com
When KT Sullivan, attired in a robin’s egg blue gown and matching chapeau with a huge feather, swept onto the stage to introduce the Cabaret Convention’s closing night program, I hoped her evident flair for both drama and comedy (her visual resemblance to Auntie Mame-period Rosalind Russell was uncanny, though she also, accurately, name-checked Loretta Young) would be a harbinger of pleasures to come. Regrettably, this was not the case. Notwithstanding a few memorable moments, the musical line-up felt less like a celebration of something alive and vital and more like the opening of a time capsule.
Though I appreciate the Foundation’s important work of continuing to champion the Great American Songbook, this show played it far too safe. The irony is that there is a dynamic, emerging cabaret scene in full flower around town, but you would never know it from the evening’s entertainment. Indeed, the Foundation’s offering the following night was called Cutting Edge at the Cutting Room; it showcased artists deemed to be “too daring for Rose Hall,” relegating these ostensibly hipper acts to the venue equivalent of the kids’ table….
While it is commendable that the organization is at last beginning to take a less staid and more inclusive approach to the cabaret community, the closing night might have benefitted by the integration of even a smidge of an edge—be it cutting or otherwise. Incidentally it should be noted that one of the artists in the Cutting Room show, Baby Jane Dexter, a great talent and a cabaret mainstay for decades, is far more representative of cabaret establishment than “cutting edge.” In 2013 I think it is fair to question whose timid sensibilities are being protected by these sorts of arbitrary designations at the expense of a more contemporary (and diverse) line-up of talent.
Though hostess Klea Blackhurst, who presided over the presentation with a breezy good humor that struck me as a mash-up of Bette Midler and Joy Behar’s most likable qualities, did her best to keep things moving, there was only so much she could do with the show’s apparent curatorial direction.
One after another, performers of greatly varying ability hewed to the tried and true. Though the significance of songwriting giants like Noël Coward and Irving Berlin (both well-represented this evening) is, of course, irrefutable, the three-and-a-half-hour trek down memory lane was slow going and only intermittently engaging.
The highlight of the first act was the presentation of the Noël Coward Cabaret Award to Marissa Mulder and two runners-up, Liam Forde and Nick Ziobro. Ziobro, only 17-years old, has good intonation and much potential, though he seemed a bit overwhelmed by Coward’s emotionally complex “Matelot.” Of the three, Forde acquitted himself best in this segment with “Wait a Bit, Joe,” exhibiting an appealing stage presence and vocal precocity.
Though Mulder closed the first act with a well-handled rendition of Coward’s “Never Again,” she suggested a fuller measure of what she is capable of in the second act. After an emotional opening featuring the still-radiant Julie Wilson’s performance of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s “But Beautiful,” Mulder came out again to receive the Julie Wilson Award. The passing-the-baton moment worked both as a theatrical device and on its own terms when, after a gracious speech, the young singer performed Tom Waits’s “Day After Tomorrow” with a quiet intensity that belied her years. Her delivery of this somber ballad was the highlight of the evening.
Gregory Generet invigorated the first act with his sonorous interpretation of “Don’t You Know I Care” and “Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues.” In the second half, glamorous Tanya Holt’s straightforward reading of “Good Morning Heartache” in a stunning blue dress provided the evening’s most elegant moment; it was a fitting tribute to Ervin Drake, one of the song’s three writers, who was in attendance.
Rather than say anything negative about specific performers or performances (which is not to suggest that there wasn’t other good work done that evening) I think it is much more constructive to question the programming philosophy of the event itself. Perhaps the Convention spirit is more suggestive of a communal hug than a well-paced, tightly programmed evening of music. Though a pep rally might seem like a good idea for a community engaged in such collective repudiation of contemporary pop culture, closing night evidence, bereft of anything innovative or fresh, might give the false impression that the cabaret scene is nothing but a sycophantic nostalgia trip.
Blackburn brought the proceedings to a close with a rather tossed-off rendition of Jerry Herman’s “Before the Parade Passes By.” The lyric’s admonition to “get some life back into my life” struck me as a commentary on the incestuous culture of the Cabaret Convention itself, if not cabaret in general. As the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s stated objective is to “stimulate and promote public interest in the fragile and endangered world of cabaret,” the organizers might recognize that continuing down the road they’re on could have pernicious consequences. For all of us who care about this music and these “fragile” cultural traditions, it is important to speak up: The existing approach is a strategy that is counterproductive to the Foundation’s stated objective. We can do better.
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The BISTRO AWARD was established by Bob Harrington in 1985 in his “Bistro Bits” column in the trade weekly Back Stage, then under the editorship of Sherry Eaker. For the first few years, the awards were merely listed in Harrington’s column as notable performances he had seen during the calendar year. The first formal presentation of the awards was held in 1990 at Eighty Eight’s, a popular cabaret venue in the West Village. From there, the show moved on to The Ballroom in Chelsea, and then relocated to the Supper Club in the Broadway District, where it remained for many years. This year marks the sixth year at Gotham Comedy Club.
The guidelines that Harrington set up for himself to determine the first winners have become the basic philosophy behind the Bistro Awards, which recognize achievement in a wide variety of categories — from outstanding performances to outstanding contributions by members of the cabaret community. The object is not to choose the “best” of anything of the year, but to recognize and congratulate the accomplishments of those who have done something special. Accordingly, categories can easily be created from year to year as they best fit the year’s distinguished work.
Some of the Bistro’s special honorees have included Kaye Ballard, Melissa Manchester, and Dee Dee Bridgewater (2012), Dionne Warwick and Carol Channing (2011), Mitzi Gaynor and Elaine Stritch (2010), Charles Aznavour and Liza Minnelli (2009), Marilyn Maye (2008), Betty Buckley (2007), Steve Ross (2006), as well as Dame Cleo Laine and Sir John Dankworth, Bobby Short, Eartha Kitt, Barbara Cook, and many others.