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Saloons: Some Enchanted Evenings

Cabaret has always been a mixed bag. The golden age is gone. However, in today's schizo world of nightclubs, things are looking pretty good. It is a milieu unique in the entertainment industry. And, it continues to reinvent itself. The late cabaret critic Martin Schaeffer wrote in Back Stage in 1993,“There cannot be a better night of classic American music than a Bobby Short gig at The Carlyle.” He was right; especially if you're a purist of the Great American Songbook.

Saloons: Some Enchanted Evenings

Bobby Short

Bobby Short . Photo: Gordon Gerrie

John Hoglund

John Hoglund, Cabaret Spotlight Columnist

Cabaret has always been a mixed bag. The golden age is gone. However, in today’s schizo world of nightclubs, things are looking pretty good. It is a milieu unique in the entertainment industry. And, it continues to reinvent itself. The late cabaret critic Martin Schaeffer wrote in Back Stage in 1993,“There cannot be a better night of classic American music than a Bobby Short gig at The Carlyle.” He was right; especially if you’re a purist of the Great American Songbook. Short, one of cabaret’s most celebrated singer-pianists, left a gap in Manhattan nightlife when he passed in 2005, after a thirty year residency at Café Carlyle. The same can be said about ghosts who haunt the saloons from the past like Mabel Mercer, Dorothy Loudon, George Shearing, Rosemary Clooney, Barbara Lea, John Wallowitch, Claiborne Cary, Susannah McCorkle, Mary Cleere Haran, Nancy LaMott, Julie Wilson and a profusion of legends whose likes we will not see again in the mashed up world of nightlife these days. If you were lucky enough to be in the audience for a show by any one of the aforementioned, you witnessed greatness. It was an embarrassment of riches. So, who are the torchbearers of today?

At the annual MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs) Awards ceremony in 1988, legendary singer Sylvia Syms took the stage to present an award. After viewing an eclectic array of singers and comics perform along with lots of back-slapping banter, she took a step forward, surveyed the crowd and summed it all up in an eloquent homily that even made it to the NY Post. In her labored, comforting voice, she shared an insider’s wisdom with an audience that crammed into the Village Gate to celebrate themselves: “Those of us who have been on the boards for as many years as I have been have a tendency to talk about what is going to happen after it’s over for us. There’s really nothing to worry about. Because in the hands of the young, up-and-coming singers that I’ve heard perform tonight, it’s going to be better, it’s going to be greater, it’s going to be wilder and more colorful than it ever was. When I began in this business, they called cabarets saloons. I was a saloon singer… ”

There was more. She was repeatedly interrupted by rousing cheers as she hit one home run after another aimed at the hearts of a room full of hopefuls. They all had the same dream. And, after three long hours of this ceremony/love-fest, more than four hundred guests left with the words of a saloon singer ringing in their ears. She will be remembered with a special night at this years Cabaret Convention at Jazz At Lincoln Center hosted by Rex Reed.

Sylvia Syms

Sylvia Syms

Fast forward to today; The measure of a singer’s worth is in the ear of the beholder. One person’s Ella is another’s Liza, etc. There isn’t a magic formula to being one of the greats. All one can do is be dedicated to the art and have a willingness to keep it real come rain or come shine. The rest is a matter of luck, timing, talent and tenacity.  For some, the call may come late. But if answered and dues are paid, there’s no turning back and no greater reward.

Many of today’s rising artists’ carrying that torch in the clubs are committed to preserving great songs. They include (but not limited to) the likes of Matt Baker, Celia Berk, William Blake, Carole J. Bufford, Eric Comstock & Barbara Fasano, Kevin Dozier, Liam Forde, Lauren Fox, Alison Fraser, Eric-Yves Garcia, Nicole Henry, Lina Koutrakos, Maxine Lineman, Rosemary Loar, Kristoffer Lowe, Richard Malavet, Marieann Meringolo, Stearns Matthews, Marissa Mulder, Molly Pope, Marcus Simeone, Anne Steele, Gabriella Stravelli and it even includes Sean Harkness and his guitar and Aaron Weinstein with his jazz violin. That’s just tipping the iceberg.

There are other, more established, cabaret stars like Ann Hampton Callaway, Joyce Breach, Mary Foster Conklin, Baby Jane Dexter, Natalie Douglas, Eric Michael Gillett, Jeff Harnar, Sheila Jordan, Barb Jungr, Karen Mason, Sharon McNight, Mark Nadler, Karen Oberlin, Vivian Reed, Annie Ross, Steve Ross,Stacy Sullivan, Marcus Simeone, Billy Stritch, KT Sullivan, Wesla Whitfield, Carol Woods and Andrea Marcovicci to name some who are consistent favorites. These entrenched performers are singing traditional cabaret fare fused with lighter material including tribute and pop-flavored shows. In the recent mix there have been celebrations of Judy Garland (Hilary Kole,) Seth Sikes with two separate shows honoring Garland and Liza Minnelli, Karen Oberlin’s Elvis Costello show, Lillias  White’s Cy Coleman show with Billy Stritch and one of the years most successful duet shows honoring Sondheim (“Another Hundred People.”) starring Jeff Harnar and KT Sullivan. Many cabaret artists’ like pop singer Analise Ashleigh, known for her turn in Broadway’s “Kinky Boots,” are also grounded in the  American songbook as in her shows at Feinstein’s/54 Below. And that’s just some of what has kept cabaret alive and booming over the past year. They all raised the bar.

Speaking of raising bars, other well known stars who play high profile or major engagements at rooms such as Feinstein’s/54 Below, Café Carlyle, Metropolitan Room, The Appel Room at Jazz At Lincoln Center and The Blue Note, etc. (jazz will be the subject of future columns) include: Betty Buckley, Barbara Cook, Matthew Morrison, Chita Rivera, Paulo Szot, Iris Williams, John Lloyd Young – and concert-cabaret aficionado Michael Feinstein (who started in saloons and made his cabaret debut in 1986 at the Oak Room at The Algonquin to wide acclaim.)

No mention of greatness and wonder would be complete without a serious nod to that beloved 88-year old thunderbolt called Marilyn Maye who rips the roof off the house with every sold out appearance. As the late Donald Smith, founder of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, said, “… cabaret will always keep good music alive…. that is why it must thrive.” And it will. That “new breed” referred to also includes a mixed bag of Broadway and pop singers who use cabaret as a one-night showcase to put their wares on display (often at Feinstein’s/54 Below.)

It’s been said many times that there is nothing like the thrill of discovery. Over the past few years, Feinstein’s/54 Below and its alt-cabaret equivalent, Joe’s Pub have turned into the premiere emporiums in Manhattan to view rising talent with enough heft to overcome the rampart facing real singers beyond today’s insidious, rock-hip-hop domination where the easiest route to stardom is exposure on a TV talent contest like “The Voice” or “America’s Got Talent.” Hooray for intimate nights.

There is more hope for good music reaching a younger audience. There are stars on the scene who appeal to the youth and their peers who are not part of the hip-hop generation. Chart-buster’s like Adele, Taylor Swift, Josh Groban, Harry Connick, Jr., Celine Dion – and Michael Buble’ (I didn’t say I was a fan,) etc., are exposing sensible (if not always great) songs to the younger set. They all have many fans. Maybe that’s because, they sing lyrics that can be understood. The big question is will this youth of today (overwhelmed by peer pressure) seek out classy artists’ to look up to and will they appreciate the greatness that will be around a hundred years from today? Some aging pop stars like Barry Manilow, Joni Mitchell, Rod Stewart, etc., discovered they could reinvent themselves by turning out questionable albums of American standards in the 90s that sold well and breathed life into sagging careers. Why not? Today, there is no Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra and their like for the kids to look up to.

Bridget Everett

Bridget Everett

In this cabaret whirlwind, another “new breed” of performers has emerged and been filling cabaret venues over the last decade. It is a growing, hip group that is wildly talented, setting trends and far more edgy than the mainstream artists. Is this the future of cabaret?  They are originals and march to a different drum. This off-beat, alt-cabaret on the bumpy journey to making it in clubs draws on a serious dose of shock value.

They often play at Joe’s Pub and the hot new East Village haven Pangea among other venues. They include the downtown phenomenon that is Bridget Everett. Her risque, sometimes poignant set can only be compared to a younger Bette Midler (though Midler didn’t perform almost naked,) Justin Vivien Bond, a transcendent transgender artist who has made a serious mark and received significant mainstream press attention, Tammy Faye Starlite, another alumnae from Joe’s Pub and recently at Pangea, has become a downtown favorite; a dark-hearted fun fixture. There’s also Ben Rimalower at The Duplex who had major successes with his one-man shows about his Patti LuPone obsession and another about his loony finances and addictions. There’s Justin Sayre, whose star us rising fast, who is an outrageous gay comic who has built a large following with his monthly “meetings” at Joe’s Pub. Likewise, John Cerna, a brilliant, award winning writer/actor who brought variations of his own messy story to The Duplex (where he was held over for months) and, more recently his new show at Cornelia Street Café. Very high on this list is handsome, globe-trotting Kim David Smith from Australia. The expressive, openly gay artist who is committed to compassionate shows incorporating decadent songs from the Weimar Republic and the French canon (see below) packs them in. Ethereal singer Carol Lipnik, who reminds some of Yma Sumac, another Joe’s Pub transplant, has earned a truckload of great reviews. And so it goes.

Yes, cabaret is thriving. But it may be a little different than what Sylvia Syms suggested in her comments that night in 1988. Too many beloved legends are gone. Reno Sweeney and other halls o f greatness are long gone. The memories linger. As Lennie Watts, president of MAC, said at their awards a few years ago: “Cabaret isn’t going anywhere. It’s here to stay.  And,  back to her  closing remarks, Syms likely summed it up best when she repeated, “… it’s going to be wilder and more colorful than it ever was.”

Mark Nadler at Pangea- photo Lou Montesano

Mark Nadler at Pangea- photo Lou Montesano

Speaking of wilder and more colorful, there’s one artist who remains impossible to slap a label on. He’s the real deal and you know it when you see it. At his latest home at Pangea in the East Village doing a once-a-month gig, cabaret star Mark Nadler might singlehandedly have revised cabaret as we’ve come to know it. The off-color antics, raucous banter are still there along with his brilliant piano playing which has only improved with time. However, for this gig, Nadler discreetly modified and fine-tuned his usual wilder than wild tomfoolery fused with trademark antics and ditties to paint a broader, more colorful canvas while  retaining the same level of magnetism that has made him the cabaret icon he is today. He also started his career in forgotten saloons and dives and, after two decades as a global cabaret star, he’s now a more contained, revealing and sensitive artist who still proves he can hold the room in the palm of his hand with the likes of tender ballads and complex, campy story songs as well as fusing the razzmatazz that is his trademark. To boot, his tap dancing has grown and he slides with the nonchalance of Danny Kaye (whom he’s often been compared to) and the fearlessness of Sammy Davis, Jr. in his prime. He’s that good.

The eclectic set worked to perfection. Opening with a joy-filled reading of “A Hundred Years From Today” (Victor Young-Ned Washington-Joe Young,) he engaged the room particularly when he slowed the pace a bit and belted … So laugh and sing, make love the thing, be happy while you may. There’s always one, beneath the sun, who’s bound to make you feel that way. He cajoled Trump for promising to allow the use of “Merry Christmas” among other absurdities from the candidate. This led into a silly “A Jewish Christmas” by Larry Kerchner (who was in the audience) that had the room in stitches. Kerschner’s “It Was Paris” followed “by La Vie En Rose” (Piaf-Luiguy-Monnott) beautifully sung in French and English, created a lilting moment. He continued the French section with Joe Kerr’s sexy “ I Kinda Like It Here In France.” As always, his set was loose and he connected with his audience on the most personal level of any performer in cabaret today addressing them by name or engaging them in the ongoing banter and clowning.

A high point came recalling memories of the beloved, late singer-songwriter John Wallowitch. A close friend, Nadler told fun anecdotes and  segued into the most idiosyncratic treatment of the trenchant “I Live Alone Again” sung sadly with a Sinatra-like loneliness that created a pin-dropper moment that shattered. You could feel the heartbreak. Then… he repeated the exact same song from a totally opposite, buoyant point of view that was contrite and uplifting. It was brilliant and a definitive lesson in what can be done with a simple lyric with a little imagination. One song, two meanings. Genius. His homage to Wallowitch also included the clever “Cosmetic Surgery” dishing aging society ladies’ addicted to looking younger.  A soft spin on the Wallowitch beauty “Come A Little Closer” in medley with “The Way You Look Tonight” (Kern-Fields) was beautifully realized.

The rest included two Kurt Weill staples, the unorthodox “Das Mad Song” in German (written with Hammerstein ll and assembled by Wallowitch) and a thrilling “Bilbao Song”… I don’t know if it would have brought you joy or grief, but It was fantastic! It was fantastic! It was fantastic…  beyond belief” sung in German. (Brecht with English lyric by Michael Feingold.)

Nadler even included a rap song from “Hamilton.” The rest was at the same high-jinx level mix of madness and intelligence that have made this one time saloon singer peerless. As someone once said about the business of show, “Be so good, they can’t ignore you.” That might have been written for Mark Nadler. His hard work paid off and the future looks even brighter for this fierce piano man who remains the prince of New York nightlife.  

Mark Nadler returns to Pangea on June 25th at 7:00 and 9:00 pm.

Kim Davis Smith - photo Joe Swick

Kim Davis Smith – photo Joe Swick

It makes perfect sense that Kim David Smith has joined the hip downtown crowd at Pangea with his own salon evening. The young man continues to recycle himself as he recalls a decadent 1920’s Berlin and also finds new ways to reinvent cabaret as we know it with this latest run he calls Morphium Kabarett. The old-fashioned, slightly gritty room is perfect for his brand. He’s in the middle of a four-week run with assorted special guests weekly.

In his first show, he gave new meaning to being cabaret’s enfant terrible with a twist with yet another spin on his steamy, neo-Weimar-cabaret-pop shows presented over the last few years. He treads loosely on the catwalk that is shock value often doing a show sans shirt and quasi-leather or glittery accessories on a well defined body. This showcase was no exception in terms of pushing the envelope. It is his trademark. Only for this run, he’s added different special guests weekly making for a variety mix that is looser while retaining his perimeter of blatant flirting with his audience. In the set, he recalled songs from previous outings such as his teasing take on “Johnny, Wenn du Geburtstag hast” (Holländer-Keller) and a haunting “Pirate Jenny” (Weill-Brecht with English lyrics by Marc Blitzstein.) For his Pangea shows,“the David Bowie of cabaret” (crowned by yours truly) offered a mystical take on Bowie’s “Space Oddity” mashed with Weill’s “Lost In the Stars” that was imaginative and fierce.

Popular downtown drag-illusionist Joey Arias, who playfully referred to Pangea as the “downtown Café Carlyle,” offered some Billie Holiday (his calling card) as only he can. Throaty readings on the likes of a yearning “You’ve  Changed,” “Living For You” and a world-weary “God Bless the Child” added spice to the show. Smith’s next surprise was Australia’s exceptionally talented Ali McGregor. This lady, who should be visible on the local scene here, is an artistic director for Adelaide’s Cabaret Convention. Moreover, she’s an exceptional vocalist who soared the scales with ease like few others. She referred to Celine Dion and the rock group AC/DC in her funny patter before diving full throttle into a demanding aria from “The Love For Three Oranges” (aka:“L’amour des Trois Oranges”) by Prokofiev that was mind boggling in its glittering execution. Then Smith brought on his husband Will Ferguson who is an esteemed baritone with the Metropolitan Opera among his impressive resume. He offered a  comedic song from “Soirée” that was spot on and a beautifully realized reading of the Stephen Foster classic “Beautiful Dreamer” to wild applause. Wouldn’t it be nice if he treated his fans to a little club date? Just saying.

Smith, whose show also included gems by Kylie Minogue and The Supremes, tied it all together and closed with Piaf’s famed “Padam, Padam” that rocked. There’s a lot left out here. And it was all good including his sharp exchanges with an adoring audience. This is an entertainer for our times and another great representative of the future of cabaret. Yes, a real cutting edge talent is carrying that torch into the twenty-first century.

The multi-talented Tracy Stark who served as musical director on some very complex charts deserves a lot of credit.

Kim David Smith’s next “Morphium Kabarett” at Pangea is on May 16 with KT Sullivan, Todd Murray and Karen Kohler .

Pangea: Having recently celebrated its one year anniversary, this East Village nightspot has really caught on. It’s a welcoming environment and it’s attracting alt-cabaret as well as mainstream acts. Singer/pianist Eric Comstock is enjoying an open-ended run every Tuesday. The club has a great American menu and there’s usually a fun crowd with some familiar faces at the long bar.

In the clubs:  There’s some exciting shows coming up now that spring is here. And, some of our most popular performers are on the boards. Baby Jane Dexter celebrates her brand new live CD at Pangea on Friday and Saturday, May 20 and 21…Upcoming at Café Carlyle is Megan Hilty running through May 14… Feinstein’s/54 Below has Marilyn May appearing through May 20, Metropolitan Room’s busy roster includes Celia Berk and Shawn Moninger (separately) on May 16, Elizabeth Sullivan on May 22 and the glorious Vivian Reed on May May 23…Don’t Tell Mama has Ricky Ritzel and guests with his “Ricky Ritzel’s Broadway” on May 27. Also there on the same day, Marcus Simeone and Maria Ottavia encore “Rodgers, Hart & Hammerstein.”

TheaterScene.net Cabaret Pick

MATTHEW MORRISON

Matthew Morrison

Matthew Morrison

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54 BELOW

May 21-25

Emmy, Tony and two-time Golden Globe nominated star of stage and screen Matthew Morrison returns to Feinstein’s/54 Below for four very special performances. In this new concert, Morrison will perform classic renditions of standards and numbers from his past productions – including Hairspray, South Pacific, Finding Neverland, Glee, and more. 

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