A long and angular clown who, were the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera remade, could play all the parts, he bounced onstage in white tie and spats. He bugged his eyes at the audience, made a few silly throwaway remarks, and plopped at the Baldwin to sing about shamelessly plugging his CD. Then he emitted a lengthy hiss that became the beginning of George and Ira Gershwin’s ” ‘S Wonderful.” Easing into that evergreen, he was juvenile – lead sincere — until, that is, he interpolated a thundering segment of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with down – to – brass – tacks sobriety. Finished, he took a low bow that turned into a somersault.
This man, who could be the most prodigiously talented entertainer in America today, works regularly in New York City. His name is Mark Nadler, and he’s just one of a couple dozen artists who received sustained applause and ringing shouts during the Tenth Cabaret Convention, which played Town Hall September 27 to October 3. Because approximately 110 participants strode from the wings and did their 7- t o – 10-minute thing at the event, the convention is a ready gauge by which to measure how well cabaret—often given a low ranking in show business triage—is doing.
Thanks to Nadler, who opened a string of Thursday-night blowouts at Sardi’s last week, and other performers almost as invigorating, cabaret is in better health than the sob sisters would have it, especially after recent closings of Rainbow & Stars and Eighty Eights. Openings around town of new rooms—Feinstein’s in the Regency and, come November, Arci’s Place on Park Avenue South—suggest a brighter future, as does the volume of CDs (approximately 2800) sold in the Town Hall lobby.
The abundant talent, however, is the foremost testament to cabaret’s resurgence — what makes the fans come back and seduces new audiences. Cases in point during this show – off week: David Campbell acting the bejesus out of Craig Carnelia’s “What You’d Call a Dream”; Alix Korey getting belly laughs throughout David Friedman’s “I Want To Be Rich, Famous, and Powerful”; Andrea Marcovicci breaking hearts with Maury Yeston’s “New Words”; Karen Mason finding the urgency in Carnelia’s “Flight”; Tom Andersen stringing together two indelible Jule Styne songs (words respectively by Sammy Cahn and Stephen Sondheim); and KT Sullivan teasing out every giggle from Noel Coward’s “World Weary.”
Convention impresario Donald Smith announced that, next year, a free ticket might be made available for each youngster accompanying an adult. But onstage,though seasoned pros certainly hold their own (75-year-old Julie Wilson; Jackie Cain and Roy Kral singing together after 50 years), youth is already on the rise. The find is Jacqui Naylor, a lanky blond in a John Singer Sargent frock who twisted and clipped her vowels while making something startling of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Cory Jamison, shorter but every bit as sleek, honored Hoagy Carmichael in his centenary year by turning “I Get Along Without You Very Well” into troubling self-recrimination. Jeanne MacDonald, a hometown girl with big – city savvy, got beautifully angry on Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By.” And Tim Draxl, a 17 – year – old Australian who affects Edwardian coats, combined an out – of – the – mouths – of – babes wisdom with adult befuddlement on Sondheim’s “No One Is Alone.”
With these entertainers (and accompanists like Christopher Denny, Christopher Marlowe, Jay Leonhart, Mark Hummel, Mike Greensill, Shelly Markham, and songwriters like Carol Hall, John Bucchino, Barry Kleinbort, Francesca Blumenthal), there’s no reason to sing sad songs for small rooms. It must be mentioned, however, that although some warblers (Wesla Whitfield, Judy Barnett, Connie Evingson) hug the jazz end of the spectrum and others the theater end (Marcia Lewis, Jack Donahue, Georga Osborne), cabaret is still something of a shifting amalgam of the verbal wit, musical intelligence, and stirring emotionality endemic to the two genres. It still draws almost exclusively on those traditions, so therefore it remains removed from the direction in which the pop mainstream is heading.
Another obstacle to comprehending cabaret’s relevance is the unceasing perception of it as a dated format, reinforced by acts who resort to dismaying clichés. Among the egregious were Brian Lane Green, who was so thrilled with his hot self he forgot to get across the meaning of John Bucchino’s “Taking the Wheel”; Marilynn Lovell Matz, who misguidedly slowed down the Rodgers – Hammerstein “Cock-eyed Optimist”; and Cynthia Crane, who made mystery meat of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.”
Throughout the week, participants commented on the present state of the art form. Trying to send patrons out with a message for potential attendees, Andrea Marcovicci said cabaret is “theater without the budget.” Cybill Shepherd put in her hard-earned two cents as well. Arriving for her rich and raucous set with the survivor’s humor that sustains intimate venues, she declared, “It’s a thrill to be here—I’ve been losing money in cabaret for 25 years.”