28th NY Cabaret Convention: ‘S Wonderful: The Music of George Gershwin

| October 18, 2017

28th New York Cabaret Convention

‘S Wonderful: The Music of George Gershwin

Rose Theater, NYC, October 17, 2017

Reviewed by Rob Lester for Cabaret Scenes

Photos: Maryann Lopinto

“My people are Americans. My time is today,” composer George Gershwin once said. The man died eighty years ago, but his music never has. Anyone who appreciates the universal language of music and his time is yesterday, today, and many tomorrows. That’s reason enough to “Strike Up the Band” to invoke the title of one of his melodies and musical comedy titles (which had two different incarnations). The number was invigoratingly invoked by Stearns Matthews in the Gershwin night that marked the second installment of this year’s Cabaret Convention concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. This, like most of the selections, had words by Gershwin sibling Ira who outlived George by four and a half decades and went on to write lyrics in partnership with such composers as Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, and Kurt Weill.

Stearns Matthews

But the focus at Rose Theater was the George compositions, including some of his instrumentals, sometimes referenced in passing bits. “Let the drums roll out!” goes the pep rally that is “Strike Up the Band,” and the rolling drums du jour were courtesy of Sherrie Maricle, the dynamic DIVA Orchestra leader, taking a break from her great group of all-female players to join some cool guys, like Jered Egan, bass player for many of the numbers, and exceptional pianists/arrangers playing for a few numbers or more: Jon Weber, Alex Rybeck, and James Followell.

Jeff Harnar & Andrea Marcovicci

Co-hosts for the night were Andrea Marcovicci and Jeff Harnar, who have performed those gracious duties for the producing entity, the Mabel Mercer Foundation, in past years and have been part of the proceedings since its early days. They appeared in both halves of the Gershwinathon, singing both separately and together, with some moments much more successful than others, although their hearts were very much in the right place and their M.O. showed long-term acquaintance with the classic standards by this giant of American music.

Aaron Weinstein

The night featured mostly Convention regulars, unlike the opening concert which boasted some debuts. The jazzy instrumental side of the composer was represented by Aaron Weinstein on violin with “Somebody Loves Me,” an example of a melody whose words were NOT written by brother Ira (Ballard MacDonald and Buddy DeSylva did the honors, but, then again, it was an instrumental, so the emphasis was squarely on the melody). There is, however, nothing “square” about Weinstein, who might look bookish and shy, but is more on the sly side when given the opportunity for patter.

Eric Comstock

 

Barbara Fasano & Eric Comstock

Barbara Fasano

Like our hosts, another well-established mixed-gender cabaret couple, Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano, sang solo and in tandem. This pair also happen to be married, and their offstage reality lends a sweet believability and added charm to their renditions of numbers about what Ira cleverly called —in a title of a piece written post-George with composer Burton Lane—“Our United State.” They are at their best when underplaying their extended honeymoon habit of mooning over each other, which occasionally gets a little gooey. But they find some teasing humor to cut the taste of honey. For Gershwin romance, all they need is to trust the material, which is the agenda here. No winks needed.

T. Oliver Reid

Deborah Silver

 

Anna Bergman

T. Oliver Reid was silky-smooth, even floating into stratospheric falsetto, while Deborah Silver, whose dress was as shiny-metallic as her surname, might take the note to tone things down. The more silvery tones came via Anna Bergman, whose legit soprano and formal persona made for a good match for “By Strauss,” with its operatic flourishes, complete with carping about Broadway and a playful self-deprecating comment (“and Gershwin keeps pounding on tin”). One can count on elegance and class, and some more reserve, from Karen Akers and Celia Berk, whose assigned solos were more of the tried and true George & Ira ballads.

 

Celia Berk

(L-R) Jered Egan, Alex Rybeck, Celia Berk, Karen Akers

Karen Akers

Then there were the gents who sat at the keyboard to end one act and begin the next. Not to noodle or lightly tickle any ivories, however Mark Nadler’s knockout extravaganza with “Rhapsody in Blue” grandly co-habitating with some “‘S Wonderful” George & Ira items. It was jaw-dropping and showstopping. But, the again, it was time to stop the show literally—intermission.

Mark Nadler

Jon Weber

Following that, Jon Weber, any singer’s dream pianist/arranger and any song’s BFF, opened the second half on his own as instrumentalist with “Piano Playin’ Jazzbo Brown” from Porgy and Bess. In a word, wow.

Marissa Mulder

Nicolas King

Gabrielle Stravelli

The next three vocalists cemented their reputations as artists treated with affection by audiences, perhaps because that’s how they treat the material: Marissa Mulder cooed and sighed and more with “Do It Again,” showing sharp comic skills; Nicolas King soared and sizzled with “They Can’t Take Away from Me”; and Gabrielle Stravelli was about 1000 times more than “all right” with “I Was Doing All Right.” Her refreshing, clear tones and joyful, jazzy, juicey journeys don’t toss off lyrics, but instead infuse them with new energy and insights.

Steve Ross

Jennifer Sheehan

Then came Steve Ross—such a cabaret institution that he may be due to model for the sculptor carving this fave’s face into the Mt. Rushmore of Cabaret Class Acts. Disarming Jennifer Sheehan glowed weaving “A Foggy Day (in London Town)” and “Love Walked In” together effectively.

Jeff Harnar & Shauna Hicks

(L-R) Jeff Harnar, James Followell, Shauna Hicks

Then, Shauna Hicks and Jeff Harnar reprised selections from their project surveying numbers from Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movies and were joined by James Followell. Harmonies were the highlight there.

I would have like more of the rare and another funny or frenzied moment. (Jeff Harnar’s “Treat Me Rough” was, well, a rough draft of that, which somehow didn’t quite land and get big laughs. Could it be we are so sensitized or de-sensitized to tales of couples with physical abuse in their history that we can’t find the humor in someone in a song demanding, “Don’t you dare to handle me with care”?)

Besides Akers and Berk combining forces for the evening’s least known selection—“Where Do We Go from Here?”—much of the evening’s sung repertoire would be familiar to even casual Gershwin fans. In a rendition directed by Sara Louise Lazarus (who has had a long-time cabaret relationship in the same capacity with Harnar), the audience got an exception to the “Standard Operating Procedure: Mostly Standards”). For those seeking the rare or underappreciated items in the oeuvre, there was little to point to for sighs or surprise. It was a missed opportunity to expand awareness of what’s below the tip of a bigger iceberg.

Dominic Ferris & Martin Milnes

And when British entertainers Dominic Ferris and Martin Milnes came on near the end, their self-ballyhooed mega-medley of dozens of Gershwin bits and pieces repeated many of the selections already performed. Thus, what might have been an “Oh! I forgot the Gershwins wrote that one, too!” experience sampling tasty leftovers in a refreshing way was more like a refresher course for those with VERY short-term memory problems (“S Wonderful” had been sung just minutes ago by the hosts and Mark Nadler had had his wonderful way with it, too. ‘S overkill). The pair, while able and energetic, seemed to be under the illusion that stuffing lots of snippets into six minutes to come up with a large total of oldies-but-goodies was not just a good idea, but a quite novel one. Apparently they’d never heard the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s Artistic Director KT Sullivan’s trademark parlor trick marathons like “29 Songs from 1929” and its partners, nor known of the similarly-constructed mega-mixes that were a staple of songwriter tributes on TV’s Carol Burnett Show or similar salutes by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme or, to be Gershwin-specific, the montage that Mel Tormé performed and is preserved on a live album.

Andrea Marcovicci

The night seemed to be more a matter of “Oh, we can’t leave THIS one out,” even if it meant repeating a number that had been done in the Convention’s opening concert, “The Man I Love.” One thing that seemed apparent by attendance and attention and applause was that, for many, “the man I love” was Mr. George Gershwin, with thanks for the music that was and is gorgeous or catchy or moving or tender—or all of the above.

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Category: Cabaret Features, Cabaret Reviews, New York City, New York City Cabaret Features, New York City Cabaret Reviews, Regional

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