Kevin on Kabaret :: 2012’s Top Dozen
In terms of the sheer number of great acts, this was the best year for cabaret in my memory. This, despite the tremendous losses: the death of Donald Smith, who produced and presided over the New York cabaret scene for so many years; the closing of the Oak Room in the winter; and the closing of Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency at year’s end. Michael Feinstein has the name, the fame, and the game to keep a club going. I pray he finds a great spot and reopens.
Nevertheless, we had the triumphant opening of 54 Below in June, with a sold-out run from legend Patti LuPone to give it a boost. It is a gorgeous room (they are billing it "Broadway’s living room") and stellar acts are flocking to its stage. I predict a long run.
As I pored over my list of shows I had seen around 75 (not nearly enough to make this a definitive list, but perhaps an educated sampling), I found it hard to narrow down to a dozen. I like finding talented newcomers and veterans who perhaps haven’t yet been appreciated enough by the community.
Thus, four vets who had stunning years at the top of their game, I left off my list: Ann Hampton Callaway, Baby Jane Dexter, Shaynee Rainbolt (teaming with Donn Trenner), and Lennie Watts. Likewise, I left off T. Oliver Reid, because I named him "Best Of" last year, even though his new show, "Next Stop, Harlem" is beyond even anything he did last year. Same for Nicole Henry, whom I honored two years ago.
So, with those caveats in mind, here are my picks for the top dozen of 2012. My list is alphabetical, as always, as it would be too difficult to rank.
This baby-faced dynamo has as much fire and soul as anyone out there, and he demonstrated it best this year with his tribute show to Etta James. His vocals are as good as it gets, and yet he has an old-soul maturity beyond his thirty years.
The theater legend returned to the intimate cabaret stage with two new shows, workshopping a lot of material that he hopes to turn into a longer stage piece in the near future. Occasionally uneven, but never less than edge-of-your-seat exciting: I laughed, I cried, and I cheered as fearless DeShields pulled out all the stops.
The one-hit wonder ("Playground in My Mind") and Vegas showman surprised everybody with his depth and passion with his show blending the songs of Cole Porter and Paul Simon in his sold-out, lengthy run at The Carlyle early in the year. Trust me, he’ll become an annual event for as long as he wants to do it.
We’ve seen these kind of shows before, about how a young gay man overcomes his bullied youth with the help of an admired diva. And yet in "Mickey and Judy," Garland takes a supporting role. Intelligently written and directed, Hughes sang and spoke so winningly, it became the feel-good show of the year.
The L.A.-based film and television actress triumphantly returned to her New York cabaret roots with a one-week summer stop at 54 Below, her first New York cabaret show in over twenty years. Nobody who experienced her (yes, it’s an experience) will forget her. I just hope she makes regular visits.
Television’s comedic storyteller was so popular, he did three extended runs at The Laurie Beechman Theatre. Often hilarious and unexpectedly moving, his "Baby Daddy" show hit the pulse of the times and he established himself as one of the greats.
In her debut show, Perlman bravely re-imagined the genre, presenting an extended fairy tale with carefully chosen songs, mostly contemporary pop, that unexpectedly fit her theatrical narrative very well. Never has the artist-journey been so creatively rendered. Perlman takes risks, and I expect that will pay off for her big-time in the long run.
A mix of classic R&B and jazz, Gregory Porter rose to the stratosphere with his second CD, "Be Good," which rode the Billboard Jazz chart all year long, and brought him a Grammy nomination a few weeks ago. Amazingly, he wrote most of the brilliant songs himself. The Bed-Stuy guy cut an odd presence at The Highline Ballroom, with his trademark retro winter hat with ear flaps, but the standing-room only crowd roared its approval for the artist in their midst.
Rimalower’s autobiographical show, "Patti Issues," was gutsy and multi-dimensional. His idol, Patti LuPone, becomes part of the narrative (first in fantasy, then in glorious real life) as he comes to terms with his often harrowing relationship with his gay father. A compelling blend of comedy and tragedy, "Patti Issues" has become a long-running triumph.
Mix a little bit of Karen Carpenter’s smooth, intimate vocals with the power of Linda Eder, then add in her own ebullient personality, and you’ll have some idea of the talent of Jennifer Sheehan. Among the women in cabaret on the scene right now, in my mind Sheehan has the loveliest vocals of all. Young as she is, I expect a long, bright future for her.
The cabaret stage has become a great place for actors to work their one-person shows. Among character pieces, none was better than "Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies" at The Triad. Jessica Sherr channeled a young, vibrant Bette Davis on the night of the 1940 Oscars, and her work (with director Susan Campanaro) was truthful and illuminating, not descending into camp impersonation.
This triple-threat beauty from London (now stateside as she pursues a Broadway career) has enough sparkle and fizz to make it New Year’s Eve every night. In her show at Feinstein’s about sirens of the silver screen, she did a short tribute to Ms. Streisand. But I was so surprised, when I met her after the show, I greeted her with, "Barbara Who?" A consummate entertainer in every way.