Bob Harrington, who died of AIDS at the age of 42 in 1992, was the cabaret critic for The New York Post and the cabaret columnist for Back Stage. It was at that publication in 1986, in his “Bistro Bits,” column that he created the informal Bistro Awards that noted his selections for the year’s outstanding cabaret performers. This inaugural incarnation comprised 100 honorees. He later began consolidating his choices into distinct categories. In 1989, it became an actual awards show, first held at the cabaret club Eighty Eights, and later at other defunct venues. These have included The Ballroom, The Supper Club (now called The Edison Ballrooom), and for the last nine years the cavernous Gotham Comedy Club.
Lasting close to three hours without a break, this year’s packed ceremony was a cavalcade of distinguished cabaret artists and newcomers, performing in an extravaganza that celebrated outstanding figures of New York City nightlife, in the format of an awards show.
The structure was composed of past honorees presenting awards in designated categories, followed by performances and acceptance speeches by those selected. As there were no nominees, it really was celebratory, rather than competitive. Intermixed were performances by other previous awardees.
The personable host of the event was Jason Graae. He opened it with an original comical song, “Bistro Blues,” about the past of these awards, with music by Rick Jensen and lyrics by Sally Mayes. He later introduced performer Aaron Lee Battle who sang a cool, “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” written by Duke Ellington and Mack David.
Off-stage announcer Sidney Myer, with his bombastic New York accent and energy, added riotously to the proceedings.
Longtime Backstage editor and the show’s producer, the charming and authoritative Sherry Eaker, made several appearances throughout the evening. She chronicled the award’s history, “…we’ve given out a thousand awards.” She also presented an award named in tribute of her father, Ira Eaker, “given to a performer believed to be on the rise.” This went to Kristoffer Lowe, who sang an eerie mash up of Sondheim’s “Moving On,” and the 1979 dance classic, “Funkytown.”
There were thrilling performances from past honorees. Marilyn Maye did her stupendous “Rainbow Medley” of “Look to The Rainbow,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “The Rainbow Connection.” Rita Gardner powerfully performed Jacques Brel’s “Carousel,” after reminiscing about her replacement appearances during the run of the original Off-Broadway production of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Following Sidney Myer’s lengthy, hilarious introduction, Karen Mason, a winner from the inaugural awards in 1986, sang a euphoric, “Almost Like being in Love.” Jazz singer, noted broadcaster, and Tony Award-winning, original cast member of The Wiz, Dee Dee Bridgewater thrillingly performed her song from that show, “Believe in Yourself.”
“I learn from all of you,” emotionally declared Shana Farr on accepting for Best Concept Show, for her Noel Coward and Cole Porter tribute. She then performed a lovely, “If Love Were All.” This award was presented by co-host Robert Windeler.
Sweeney Todd original cast member Sarah Rice introduced Jeff Harnar. He did a sweet Sondheim medley of “The Little Things You Do Together,” “I’m Calm,” and “Getting Married Today.” He then presented the Best Vocalist Award to Celia Berk, who marvelously performed Sondheim’s little known song ”Sand,” from the unproduced movie musical, Singing Out Loud.
“Thank you Bistro people for having such impeccable taste!” exclaimed Ongoing Jazz Artistry recipient Carol Fredette. She compellingly spoke of her long career and performed, “No Regrets.” Natalie Douglas presented this award. Co-host Kevin Scott Hall awarded Best Jazz Vocalist to Gabrielle Stravelli, who sang, “Dream Dancing.”
Comic actress Mary Testa presented Best Vocalist to Marissa Mulder, who did a wonderfully breathy, “In the Still of The Night.” Associate producer Roy Sander presented Best Singer-Instrumentalist to Eric Comstock who performed, Burton Lane’s “That Great ‘Come-and-Get- It’ Day,” at the piano. Mr. Sander also introduced past comedy honoree, John Fugelsang, who movingly spoke of how that award helped his career, and then did his political comedy routine, with his characteristically dry, low-key delivery.
Best Debut went to Joshua Dixon who sang a quivering, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Darius de Haas presented Stearns Matthews with Best Recording for his CD, Spark, from which he performed, “Spark of Creation.”
Beaming Broadway musical comedy veteran, Lee Roy Reams presented the final honor, the ASCAP Major Engagement Award to Lillias White.
“My grandmother’s table was my cabaret,” she recalled about the beginning of her long and successful career. In a full-out performance, she then recreated her Tony Award-winning role as an aging prostitute, from the 1997 Broadway musical The Life, with her signature song, “The Oldest Profession.” It was a commanding and fitting finale to this exuberant event.
The excellent band was composed of musical director Daryl Kojak on piano, Rex Benincasa on drums, and Ritt Henn on bass.
The technical aspects were superior and seamlessly rendered by sound engineer Jean-Pierre Perreaux and Matthew Gandolfo’s lighting.
That the volume of performers and speakers with their highly effective appearances and performances were so well paced, was a testament to Shellen Lubin’s accomplished direction.
The 30th Annual Bistro Awards (March 4th 2015)
Gotham Comedy Club, 208 West 23rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.bistroawards.com
Running time: two hours and fifty minutes with no intermission