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TheaterScene.net Cabaret Honors: A First Annual List

The eclectic world of cabaret is unique in the entertainment industry. It allows artists' to connect with an audience in an intimate setting. Today, the clubs are ripe with new, rising and mature talents and the beginners who want to make it. But, who are today's torchbearers? Who will make their mark? And, who will take cabaret into its next phase? Time will tell.

By John Hoglund

The eclectic world of cabaret is unique in the entertainment industry. It allows artists’ to connect with an audience in an intimate setting.  Today, the clubs are ripe with new, rising and mature talents and the beginners who want to make it. But, who are today’s torchbearers? Who will make their mark?  And, who will take cabaret into its next phase? Time will tell. There are many common denominator starting with talent, perseverance and performing at a venue where they are seen by many (other than family and friends.)  In today’s schizo music world with live music battling cyberspace, iTunes, downloads, etc., cabaret still remains unique. It’s live. And that stands for something.  And – it belongs to New York.

With that in mind, TheaterScene.net is delighted to recognize some of those gifted artists with it’s First Annual Cabaret/Jazz Honors.

TheaterScene.net Cabaret Honors: A First Annual List

Isn’t it rich? The world of cabaret offers performers a milieu that is unique in the entertainment industry. It allows artists’ to connect with an audience in an intimate setting.  Today, the clubs are still ripe with new, rising and mature talents. It’s nothing like it used to be say, in the 1980s and 90s. Nor does it touch the semi-cabaret revival seen in the 70s when some major names emerged from small rooms and went onto greater heights such as Peter Allen.

The stories of stars who used cabaret as a stepping stone to their future go back a long time.  For instance, Marlene Dietrich and Barbra Streisand got their first recognition in piano bars and later cabaret rooms.   Some little facts:  Tony Bennett was a singing waiter in a restaurant – where he was first discovered. Lady Gaga used to perform with a keyboard at The Bitter End. Harry Connick, Jr., played piano at Chez Josephine on 42nd Street and The Knickerbocker Bar on University Place before his official debut at The Algonquin. The ultimate cabaret star of our day, Michael Feinstein came to cabaret after working piano bars in Ohio and Hollywood like the Chateau Marmont prior to his Algonquin debut in 1986 (which was extended to 16 weeks and solidified him as a major star.) British  sensation Jamie Cullem made his American debut – also at The Algonquin as did Diana Krall and Peter Cincotti. Mel Torme’ was a yearly fixture at Michael’s Pub. Rainbow & Stars presented Rosemary Clooney for 10 years as well as a plethora of singing stars from Broadway, television and the movies. Once, Nathan Lane and his partner once did midnight shows at Don’t Tell Mama as did Jennifer Lewis, Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney. The Ballroom (in SoHo and Chelsea) offered the likes of Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt, Charles Pierce, Wayland Flowers and Madame, Jane Olivor, etc. Betty Buckley sold out shows at The Bottom Line, The Blue Note, Joe’s Pub and Maxim’s to name a few. Barbara Cook packed Cafe’ Carlyle for many years. Elaine Stritch bid farewell to a sensational career there with several sold out runs.  And, the luminous Judy Collins returned to a club setting after 40 years for several appearances there as well (her shows were usually sold out before she opened.)

A sea of great names emerged from Reno Sweeney in the 1970s that included Peter Allen. Cissy Houston once brought her young daughter, Whitney, to the club to perform in her sets. Barbra Streisand was signed to do Funny Girl after being seen by Ray Stark and the producers at the legendary Bon Soir on West 8th Street. Other iconic stars who followed their dreams in and out of cabaret include: Woody Allen, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Joan Rivers, Bea Arthur, Dorothy Loudon, Kaye Ballard, Phyliss Diller, Lenny Bruce, Carol Burnett, Chita Rivera, Phylis Hyman, Don Rickles, Roseanne Barr, Jimmy Webb, Morgana King, Sylvia Syms, Liberace, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Chris Rock, Billie Holiday, Billy Joel and Robin Williams – just to tip the iceberg.

Today, 54 BELOW (which once housed Studio 54,) packs endless stars, including Patti LuPone who has become a regular there, from Broadway into this refurbished, plush cellar. The roster is long and impressive.  Cabaret has played a relevant part in launching rising and reinventing stars and has always been a land of discovery – and comebacks; A melting pot. It deserves to be taken seriously and recognized. Hence, TheaterScene.net is launching this annual Honors list.

Who are today’s torchbearers? Time will tell. The common denominator is talent, perseverance
and performing at a venue where they are seen by many (other than family and friends.)  In today’s schizo music world battling iTunes, cyberspace, downloads, etc., and, in spite of crepe hangers, cabaret still remains singular in the world of performing arts.. It’s live. And that stands for something.  And – it belongs to New York.

2014 was filled with some hits and misses. Personal and professional triumphs in the small rooms were not as plentiful as in the glory days of cabaret. Booking managers and associates resorted to many special or gimmick events between solo shows to draw in crowds and to pay the rent. Things aren’t the way they once were, that’s for sure, opined the well-respected Jan Wallman who played a serious roles nurturing artists’ who moved on to fame and fortune since the 1960s – including Barbra Streisand.

With the aforementioned in mind and in response to several requests, this observer, who has written about cabaret and live performances (everywhere) for thirty years, offers a new, selective list of outstanding artists’ based on their merit, potential and contributions to cabaret.

TheaterScene.net is delighted to recognize these gifted artists with it’s First Annual Cabaret/Jazz Honors

Judy Collins: Lifetime Achievement Artist (Town Hall, Cafe Carlyle)

judy collins

Judy Collins

Possibly the most galvanizing artist to grace any list, Judy Collins has inspired audiences with her pure, interpretive vocals, boldly vulnerable songwriting, personal life triumphs, and a  commitment to social activism. Since the 1960s, she’s evoked both the idealism and steely determination of a generation united against social and environmental injustices. Five decades later, her luminescent presence shines brightly as new generations bask in the glow of her iconic 50-album body of work, and heed inspiration from her spiritual discipline to thrive in the music industry for half a century. And, she sounds the same today as she did when she first stepped on a  tiny stage in a small club. Her soprano remains pure and her magical story telling gifts are in a league of their own.

Matt Baker: Outstanding Jazz Pianist (Birdland, Le Cirque, Lincoln Center, etc. )

Matt Baker 2

Matt Baker

Matt Baker is an incredibly gifted jazz pianist who has already been compared to some of his musical heroes like Herbie Hancock, Taylor Eigsti and  Oscar Petersen. The buzz is strong and his star is rising from here to his native Australia. For any doubters, catch his work on YouTube. He was triumphantly singled out by Stephen Holden in the NY Times (with a great photo) on opening night of the 2014 Cabaret Convention at Jazz At Lincoln Center (where he killed it.) This, after a successful recovery from major hand surgery that briefly questioned his future. For now, he’s making noise around town with his remarkable jazz interpretations and improvisations. And with good reason. He shows the same promise as the other hot jazz pianists who attained legendary status. In today’s arena, Matt Baker is one of the most serious names in jazz to keep a keen eye on. He’s become a regular at Le Cirque on Mondays and can also be found gigging around town at Smoke Jazz Club and Cleopatra’s Needle when he’s not on tour.

Celia Berk: Outstanding Female Debut: (Metropolitan Room)

Celia Berk 3

Celia Berk

Making one of the most auspicious cabaret debuts in years, this mid-age former business lady fulfilled her dream and took the Metropolitan Room and cabaret by storm in 2014 with her eclectic show, You Can’t Rush Spring, led by the multi-talented Alex Rybeck as Musical  Director with Sean Harness of guitar and Matt Goetz on bass in a show smoothly directed by acclaimed, multi-award winning singer Jeff Harnar. How could she miss? To say she found her calling (after dreaming about it for so long,) would be an understatement. Her confident opener said it all about who she is and what she’s doing in cabaret; I’ve Been Waiting All My Life, the rarely heard upbeat, yet hopefully wistful ditty from Ballroom (Billy Goldenberg/the Bergman’s.) It  set the tone for all that followed. Song list aside, it was this lady’s classy approach and intelligence that shined throughout the hour – making her a winner. She’s funny. She’s reflective. Mostly, she has the goods that should keep her in the cabaret spotlight as she climbs the ladder – with a lot of support.

Joyce Breach: Outstanding Traditional Cabaret (Don’t Tell Mama)

Joyce Breach

Joyce Breach

In 2014, the NY Times referred to Joyce Breach as … the quintessential keeper of the flame …in an endearing show that paid respectful homage to Blossom Dearie and Peggy Lee at Don’t Tell Mama. From the same school as Mabel Mercer, this honey-voiced veteran is at the top of the heap when it comes to paying homage to the American Songbook. Her soft, warm alto ranks in a league with many greats from the past (like Rosemary Clooney) in terms of subtle, riveting storytelling. There’s no razzle dazzle here, no histrionics. Just heartfelt honesty from an intelligent saloon singer who tells the truth in song. Her surprise turn at Don’t Tell Mama in 2014 was a testament to her craft. With the great Jon Weber at the piano (filling in for Mike Renzi,) the show was undiluted, traditional cabaret at its finest. The  show also won her many raves and, with luck, will return.  Her new CD, Moments Like This (with Renzi,) is also a winner.

Nate Buccieri: Outstanding Piano Bar Entertainer

Nate Buccieri

Nate Buccieri

A popular MAC Award winner, Nate Buccieri performs non-stop around New York City, the United States, and Europe. He as a wildly talented singer/songwriter, pianist, accompanist, and music director. With a wide repertoire encompassing pop, jazz, Broadway, classical – and original music, Nate is most often seen spiritedly entertaining in a bevy of Gotham’s mobbed music clubs and hot spots as well as upscale performance halls and theaters as soloist and alongside many distinguished performers. An avid composer, Nate is currently working on his new CD. His last, Little Boy Flying, was released to acclaim. From Don’t Tell Mama, The Duplex, Brandy’s – to the opening of the Rainbow Room with Michael Feinstein, Nate Buccieri is one of today’s most in-demand musicians who can often be found rocking the rooms in piano bars across the town and is a most worthy recipient of this honor.

Baby Jane Dexter: Outstanding Performance Honor (Metropolitan Room)

BJD performance - Ian Herman - pink top

Baby Jane Dexter

Cabaret’s beloved lioness, fresh from several medical setbacks, gave another winning performance in her latest series of shows, More Rules Of The Road: Part 3 at the Metropolitan Room with two separate runs. Performing with long time musical partner Ross Patterson, Baby Jane brought her trademark, rough and ready bluesy brand of raw reality to a dazzling array of piercing story songs that unfolded like a novel based on her life. She is the ultimate survivor who tells it like it is. This is her trademark and accounts for one of the reasons she remains so popular with a loyal, cult-like following who clamor to see her. Resurrecting her original and controversial Fifteen Ugly Minutes and Chickey, Chickey, she cast a spell. Then, appropriately, bellowing a Janis Joplin-like growl, she positively exploded with I Put A Spell On You that was hauntingly powerful. In fact, the word powerful plays the most important part in this artist’s showcases. That power, tenacity and perseverance in the words (sung in her trademark, “Everybody Hurts” … Hold on, hold on … (in the face of defeat,) are her calling cards. It is also the main reason she deserves every honor for such bravery against the odds and substance in maintaining a shimmering cabaret career that is unlike any other. The Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs (MAC) is honoring her (and Steve Ross) with this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award in March.

Joshua Dixon: Outstanding Male Debut: (The Duplex)

Joshua-Dixon 2

Joshua Dixon

This happy-go-lucky breath of sunshine won a whole community over with his delightful debut show, Fly Up. Stitching together frayed pieces of his life, this infectiously outgoing performer touched on everything from  his humble Mormon beginnings to his wild college days, his love of musical theater and his personal struggle for acceptance being gay in a world that was not always accepting. And, he wrapped it all up in a series of masterful musical vignettes unfolding his pieces of dreams under the always intelligent direction of Gerry Geddes with musical director Steven Ray Watkins. A great reading of Scott Even Davis’s terrific “Cautiously Optimistic” set the stage for what was to come.  What unfolded was a bevy of captivating vignette-like set ups paired with well chosen songs and minimal banter that exposed a multi-talented young man who has so much to offer. This debut was a teaser that is only the beginning (if Broadway doesn’t snatch him first) of what promises to be a relevant career on the intimate stage – with a great baritone to boot. Closing all this with “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever,” was succinct in its sanguine message of what lies ahead as he embraces his optimistic future. Mr. Dixon is a solid winner, off to a good start and, hopefully, that future will involve many more shows in cabaret.

Bridget Everett: Outstanding Performance Artist (Joe’s Pub)

Bridget Everett

Bridget Everett

Batten down the hatches! While non-conformist artists’ using cabaret spaces to act out is not new (anybody recall a young Bette Midler at The Continental Baths in the 1970s?) Like Midler, Ms. Everett’s appearances at Joe’s Pub are anything but conventional. Yet, she packs them in. She is a self-proclaimed alt-cabaret provocateur.

Her risque, bawdy brand of high camp fused by a lack of wardrobe (!) and chaotic guffaws all of which lend the desired shock value to what also masks a sensitive artist with an enviable voice who blatantly shatters the rules of decorum with abandon with her ballsy antics. She offers no apologies. And, she doesn’t pander those rules. The raunchy Everett also has this interesting, softer side that yanks at her idolater’s hearts making for an evening of the most offbeat cabaret/theater that is impossible to ignore and certainly memorable.  She may be an acquired taste but one thing’s for certain, her star is rising. Even the prolific Marc Shaiman has jumped on board for what he knows is going to be a ride to the top as celebs and fans flock to this multi-talented avant garde performance artist – who gives new meaning to fearless.

Annie Hughes: Outstanding Comeback Showcase (Don’t Tell Mama)

Annie Hughes

Annie Hughes

The late cabaret critic Bob Harrington (Back Stage/NY Post) once said that, among other things, cabaret is all about comebacks. With few exceptions, not many are remembered with such love as Annie Hughes who has always been an exception. After a full recuperation from delicate spinal surgery in her (reclaimed) hometown in Wisconsin, her SRO one-nighter at Don’t Tell Mama had everything that makes this milieu unique. So much, that for over an hour, she single-handedly delivered what can only be described as one the most entertaining, trenchant and heartfelt  returns since another great soprano, Barbara Cook faced her fears and took the cabaret world by storm after a long absence in 1979, reinvented herself and let the world see her warts and all at Brothers and Sisters on West 46th Street. Annie Hughes has those same interpretive qualities  that brought Broadway’s iconic ingenue back to prominence and a post-Broadway career that still astonishes today – at 87. If she so chooses, this brilliant soprano who can break more than a glass, is capable of cracking any ceiling with the power of her voice – and talent. Her loose show was  extraordinary in its songs, depth, sharp comedy asides and thought-provoking skill that moved an appreciative audience. Audible sobs mixing with hysterical laughter were the norm throughout this exceptional show. Hopefully, she will share these gifts more frequently. She has the stuff to give cabaret a needed boost. It’s not just about remembering some glitter and be gay moments. This lady has too much going to stay away. Times Like This was a masterclass in getting it right.

SSheila Jordan micheila Jordan: Outstanding Traditional Jazz Artist (Birdland)At 86, Sheila Jordan remains one of the most relevant jazz singers of the last four decades. And, she has no plans to slow down. Always in demand, she is a master at subtle intimacy and honest interpretation, She is in her own league. When performing, she can be high-spirited and buoyant in front of an audience as she emotes a joy that’s hard to explain on her famed bee-bop numbers. Yet, she can stop the show show cold with an emotionally draining “Don’t Explain” that is definitive. Once a pal of Charlie Parker (“Bird”,) she tours Europe and Asia frequently and in 2014 packed them into Birdland that got her even more attention. While not as commercially recognizable as an Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan or Peggy Lee, Sheila Jordan carries her own unique torch in the world of jazz and has earned the respect of legions of fans who enjoy the real thing. She’s award-worthy based on her interpretive intelligence and warmth alone. A classic.

Barb Jungr: Outstanding Solo Showcase In A Theatrical Venue (59E59 Theaters)

Barb Jungr

Barb Jungr

Internationally acclaimed by critics, Barb Jungr eschews the mundane and went for deep-rooted analytically charged diversions, deconstruction and emoting the complex likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen in her latest show. Hard Rain .
Such pop giants have formed the windows of her musical tapestry. Few cabaret artists have gotten such rave notices … Ms. Jungr, who was accompanied on piano by Tracy Stark and on percussion by Mike Lunoe, has a voice that can be tender as well as caustic. Her ability to run the emotional gamut lends the show an astounding emotional range. Not a word or an implication was missed in interpretations that conveyed the knowledge of a crusading forensic scientist passionately uncovering the truth (NY Times.)  It doesn’t get better than that. Hands down, she is one of  today’s most riveting artists. She tells compelling tales about the songs and songwriters as her huge audience grasps onto every word. Remarkably, she makes it all work effortlessly to anyone who has wallowed in her ingenious musically burnt offerings of pop songs with a purpose. Her sold out shows at 59E59 Theaters were testament to her greatness.

Jonathan Karrant: Outstanding Male Jazz Vocalist (Kitano’s)

Jonathan Karrant-mic 3

Jonathan Karrant

From Vegas to California to the cabaret/jazz rooms of Manhattan, Jonathan Karrant is rapidly making a name for himself on the club circuit. No cookie-cutter, carbon copy, he owns a  very distinct, smoky sound and brings a fresh style to midnight classics. With a penchant for  blues ballads in the mature Sinatra style, he envelopes a room with his intelligent delivery, boyish personality and wistfully haunting readings of classics that used to fill the clubs in days of old.  Fortunately, he’s not another Buble’ wannabe. This handsome young man has his own, confident style that gets better with each outing (as his rabid fan base grows.) He thoroughly shined with his two shows at Kitano’s that left the audience cheering for much more.  Highlights from his repertoire include lending his velvety baritone to warmly pensive readings of “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” “Drinkin’ Again,” “Please Send Me Someone To Love” and a fun “Doodlin’.”  All solid entries from a young guy with an old fashioned heart. He’s persuasive, every song is fullu realized  and he engages his audience with his winning dynamism. His CD, On And On, is also a solid winner. Hopefully, he’ll spend more time in Manhattan Clubs.

Jonny Petersen: Outstanding One Man Show:  (Stage 72)

Jon Petersen

Jon Petersen

This outrageously talented song and dance Broadway and cabaret charmer from London has been dazzling audiences in America since he first crossed the pond. His various turns as George M. Cohan have become legendary and brought him around the globe in various incarnations of Chip Deffaa’s brilliantly realized tribute shows in assorted venues. His demanding,  knock-em dead show, Song Man/Dance Man, led to even more raves. After a move to Las Vegas, his local cabaret forays are fewer and far apart as he has been focusing on film and television appearances in Hollywood. His 2014 cabaret offering as Anthony Newley, He Wrote good Songs, at Stage 72 (formerly The Triad,) brought even more acclaim and shouts of wonder at his audacious, non-stop talent in yet another one-man show that proved once again that Mr. Petersen is that rare talent that deserves every honor. In the show, Petersen duplicated Newley’s trademark mannerisms and expressive vocal style. He effortlessly sailed through show-stoppers  like  “Gonna Build A Mountain,” “Once In A Lifetime,” “Candy Man,” “I’m All I Need,” “Pop Goes The Weasel” and “Who Can I Turn To?” as well as a bevy of gems. For Newley’s signature, “What Kind Of Fool Am I?,”  Petersen became Newley replete with the world’s baggiest pants, big suspenders and full clown makeup, just like his idol did in Stop The World, I Want To Get Off. To say more would be redundant. In a show biz world of hopefuls and wannabes, Jonny Petersen continues to be the real thing. Adjectives can’t fully describe the scope of this man’s talent.  Jonny Petersen remain at the top as one of today’s triple threat talents. He has no peer. [publisher’s note: Chip Deffaa is Editor-at-Large of Theaterscene.net]

Vivian Reed: Outstanding Major Engagement: 54 BELOW

Vivian Reed 5

Vivian Reed

Vivian Reed is one of cabaret’s greatest stars. Yet, she is overlooked by various awards’ committees and their gods. Yet, this Tony nominee (Bubbling Brown Sugar) with an impressive body of acclaimed musical theater work on Broadway and who is an in-demand, respected artist in Europe, continues to outdo herself as she did this past June at 54 BELOW in one of the year’s finest  showcases. From a rivetingly intense “God Bless the Child” to a haunting “Blues In the Night,” her show had audiences cheering for more. She didn’t let them down. Ms. Reed, who began at long forgotten clubs, has still got it all – and then some. An emotionally powerful voice that soars to the rafters or melts to a controlled diminuendo, she can shatter a room with savage moxie. And, she’s a truth teller from an old school. She is among the very best at her craft. The cabaret community embarrasses itself by not giving this hallowed artist her due. Such are the reasons she made this elite list – considering the stiff competition out there among major players. It does not get much better in today’s world filled with over-lauded performers who will never touch the greatness of Vivian Reed. Any questions? Just go see her next engagement.

Marcus Simeone: Outstanding Major Engagement: (The Cutting Room)

Marcus Simeone

Marcus Simeone

Few singers harness their talent to their emotions like Marcus Simeone.  His naked, self-exposed heartfelt delivery draws his audience in. After more than a dozen years on the cabaret scene with rave reviews and comparisons to greats ranging from Johnny Mathis to Little Jimmy Scott, Al Green, Harry Belafonte and Michael Jackson, this versatile, powerhouse-tenor with the 5-octave range, continues to amaze and challenging himself. In today’s world where shouting passes for singing or forced emotions pass for sincerity, Simeone’s emotionally-charged vocals are a revelation. Such mellifluous singing taps hidden yearnings with every phrase. Nothing is false. A fearless artist playing by his own rules, whether singing heart-wrenching ballads or rocking the house, he has emerged as one of the most unique singer/songwriter/recording artists to be reckoned with in years. From the Great American Songbook, Broadway to soaring, hold-no-prisoners R&B torch songs – and jazz, Simeone casts a spell. His achingly beautiful, clarion tones are beautifully realized as each song reaches a fervent peak placing him in a league of his own. A late bloomer to cabaret, who overcame a crippling shyness, he continues to conquer fears and face rough patches life has thrown his way.  His shows are not always conventional and he’s not from a cookie-cutter school of cabaret. Above all, his honesty and sincere delivery touch audiences with a voice like no other. His shattering, souldful vocals emanate from a place of simple joy to profound sadness that fuels such a commanding voice. This honor is for Simeone’s 2014 rafter-raising show at The Cutting Room where he created the perfect storm that left the entire staff lined up cheering for more after a demanding showcase of scorching show-stoppers that electrified the room. To boot, the club’s owner proclaimed out loud, … He’s a phenomenon! We want him to be a regular at the club! As always, the crowd agreed. This honor is a well deserved.
[Full disclosure: I would be remiss not to mention that through mutual acquaintances and as his stature grew, this observer came to know Marcus Simeone fairly well over the years. However, I have not once reviewed him since my initial critique of his debut in 2001. Consequently, he should not be punished. I am adamant about supporting genuine talent and the benign connection has not colored  my  unbiased, professional opinion on the man’s abilities.]

Gabrielle Stravelli:  Outstanding Female Jazz Vocalist (Metropolitan Room)

Gabrielle Stravelli

Gabrielle Stravelli. Photo: Kevin Alvey

Having paid her dues over the last several years with acclaimed gigs in cabaret and assorted jazz venues, Gabrielle Stravelli has emerged as one of today’s most remarkable, effervescent jazz singers on the circuit. That’s saying a lot considering some refined competition in the jazz rooms today. A new CD is on the way in the fall  and a major engagement upcoming then. All this following an unqualified rave review in the New York Times from her last outing at the Metropolitan Room in the fall of 2014 where she was even compared to Ella Fitzgerald … As she dipped and swooped, twirling notes and phrases with a confidence and playfulness that recalled Ella Fitzgerald in her prime, Mr. Stravelli began interpreting lyrics with a ferocity that her vocal pyrotechnics accentuated, and the show’s theme emerged.  That same review also noted a comparison to Aretha Franklin. Such heady comparisons aside, we think she stands on her own and will make the mark she deserves. She is a singer of the first rank who shows consistent growth as an artist and is well deserving of every honor.

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