The 29th New York Cabaret Convention: The Best of Jerry Herman

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The 29th New York Cabaret Convention

The Best of Jerry Herman

Hosted by Klea Blackhurst

Rose Theater, NYC, October 11, 2018

Reviewed by Todd Sussman for Cabaret Scenes

Photos: Maryann Lopinto

It was the best of times.  Period. 

Iconic Broadway songwriter Jerry Herman, who Liza Minnelli once referred to as a poet laureate, has been top of mind, once again, ever since Bette Midler starred in a sell-out, award-friendly revival of Hello, Dolly!, premiering in early 2017. But Herman doesn’t have to promise to never go away again. You see, he never really left.

Last Thursday night, the brightest stars of the cabaret world paid tribute to him in the elegant Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center. And, as cabaret artists so often and eloquently do, they collectively did a deep dive into Mr. Herman’s catalogue—not only the critical and commercial successes (Dolly, Mame, La Cage aux Folles)—but also the lesser received works (Dear World, The Grand Tour, Mack and Mabel) that, at first blush, may have not had the impact of his hit shows but have, over the years, gained momentum and status in the Herman canon.

The audience was in for a rare treat. In a nutshell, the performances were, overall, stellar, and the interpretations altogether fresh and original, as the artists celebrated Herman by putting their own stamp on his songs. In fact, word of mouth that night three of this year’s Cabaret Convention was the best of the bunch quickly circulated through the lobby.   

Klea Blackhurst

The exuberant Klea Blackhurst was the ideal choice to host these proceedings and she surely hit the ground running with “Just Leave Everything to Me,” a list song written by Jerry Herman specifically for Barbra Streisand as the movie incarnation of Dolly Levi. Folks, these are complex lyrics, and Blackhurst nailed them. Vocally, she is one of the best “old school” belters in the business.  Herman/Dolly aficionados will note she also included a few lines from “I Put My Hand In,” the first full number from the Broadway show. This song also provided a great showcase for the jazz trio (Rob Garcia on drums, Steve Doyle on bass, and James Followell on piano). Throughout the evening, several pianists took their turn playing in the trio.

Blackhurst soon followed-up with the rollicking “It’s Today” from Mame, keeping the tone lively as first performer and emcee. She also provided much laughter with her quips and asides. As she stated, “I will give you fact and opinion throughout the evening.” She tells it like she sees it, but with a wink. Who else would admit to a love/hate relationship with New York City at this event? She also returned to the recurring theme of her own connection to Jerry Herman, as well as the link between Jerry and many of the guest performers. Cabaret and Broadway share an indelible bond, and that bond was celebrated on this special occasion.

Brent Barrett

Brent Barrett was the first guest performer in Act I and the final guest in Act II. His command of the stage and confidence are readily evident, and he used his rich baritone to deliver “Look Over There” from La Cage, a show he has starred in and knows, literally, by heart. He sung in honor of his 101-year-old mother, and it was quite moving. Barrett reminded us why he’s a star whose luster shines bright.

His second performance, “Song on the Sand,” is another La Cage jewel. It’s a reflection back on the early days of a romance, and the genius of Herman here is that only fragments of lyrics of a long-ago song within the song are remembered (“something about sharing, something about always”). If the sands of time are not enough to obscure the lyrics for the song’s narrator, then the crashing waves will do the rest. But that is Herman’s point. Those fragments are more than enough to convey the emotional punch. And Barrett, with a tear in his eye, delivered his own pitch-perfect emotional punch. He mesmerized the crowd with this version. Kudos to Rob Garcia, too, for his elegant drum brush.

Joan Ryan

In her layered flapper girl fringe and with her soaring vocals, Joan Ryan gave us her rendering of “Look What Happened to Mabel” (Mack and Mabel) and she was wonderful. In this number, the title character from the show sings about her transition from waitress to movie star in the third person, with clever references to the deli foods on the menu. It’s at once funny and touching….and always makes me hungry. Mack and Mabel—Herman’s coulda-woulda-shoulda show—has developed a cult following, and that elusive hit production of it is still a dream of many Herman followers.

Josephine Sanges

For this tribute, Dear World was mined for several songs, and the first, “I’ve Never Said I Loved You,” was sung by the incomparable Josephine Sanges. Her warm, operatic voice and vocal finesse brought the gorgeous words of imagining a first and final love to life. Accompanied only by John M. Cook on piano, Sanges hit a home run with this deceptively simple song.

Greg Gropper

Greg Gropper, a sophomore at University of Michigan, has studied under cabaret goddess Marilyn Maye, who performed “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly! at the 2005 Cabaret Convention. Now it was baritone Gropper’s turn. He turned in a jovial performance of this song woven with internal rhymes.   

Gropper segued from Herman’s biggest hit show to perhaps his least-known, The Grand Tour, for “Marianne.”  A relative newcomer to cabaret—who also performed at last year’s convention—he tapped into a more reflective side for this hidden gem of a ballad, demonstrating his growing versatility.

Valerie Lemon

Angela Landsbury, who originated “Kiss Her Now” in Dear World, would be proud to hear Valerie Lemon’s beautifully understated rendition. Lemon’s vocals—and vocalise—were sterling. The trio became a quartet with the addition of Adrian Daurov’s haunting cello for this performance. 

Lee Roy Reams

You could say Lee Roy Reams is part of the Jerry Herman corporation, if there was such a thing. He has played Cornelius Hackl alongside Carol Channing in the 1978 Broadway revival of Dolly, directed and choreographed Miss Channing in her last run as Dolly in 1995, and then, boldly and imaginatively, assumed the title role himself in 2015—the first male actor to play Dolly Levi in an officially sanctioned U.S. production.

Prior to his performance, Reams read some words of gratitude from an absent Herman, who is residing in Miami: “Wish I could be with you tonight. Thank you for supporting my songs and may they always bring you the best of times.”

“Penny in My Pocket” was written for the original Broadway production but deleted until many years later when David Hyde Pierce revived it in the Bette Midler run. To set-up his version, Lee Roy Reams devilishly told the tale of legendary producer David Merrick going to great lengths to pick up a penny from the floor one night. Reams then bit into this song with great relish.

He returned two times in Act II, including to perform the title song from La Cage aux Folles, in black tuxedo, bright red pocket square…and matching bright red boa!  Peppering his performance with imitations of Mae West (including some naughty and bawdy double entendres), Tallulah Bankhead, and Marlene Dietrich, he had an unabashedly fun time with this number and invited the audience along for the ride. It was a hand-clapping highlight. And trust me, this guy knows how to rock a red boa!

Sarah Rice

Cabaret at its best shines a new light on a familiar song. Sarah Rice reimagined “And I Was Beautiful” (Dear World) from the point of view of a pet, and not just any pet, but specifically, one abandoned by its owner. It was very original, inspired, and heartrending. I am certain Jerry Herman would be honored that his songs—which are so universally loved and relatable, and which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations—were presented anew and so poignantly at this tribute. Complementing Rice’s splendid vocal was Amy Ralske’s melancholy cello.  Whenever I hear this song in the future, I will think of Ms. Rice…and the surrendered pet.

Eric Michael Gillett

It made complete sense that Klea Blackhurst introduced Eric Michael Gillett by commenting on his sharp suit and “brand new pair of knees.” It doesn’t get any realer than that. When Gillett sang “I Am What I Am,” La Cage’s show-stopping anthem, it was clear he understood the meaning of the song. His vocal was stark and powerful. 

Debbie Gravitte

The magic of Herman’s music is that his songs can apply to different scenarios. Debbie Gravitte shared she initially thought “If He Walked into My Life” from Mame was about romantic love, only later to learn, in the Broadway show, it was about the familial love between a woman and her nephew. Gravitte dedicated the song to her son, and imbued her performance—her brilliant vocal take—with a mother’s passion.

To close-out Act I, Gravitte then joined our bubbly hostess Blackhurst for a delectable sparring match on Mame’s go-to crowd-pleaser, “Bosom Buddies.” Most of us know these lyrical jabs by heart, so when Blackhurst did her own switcheroo— changing “sex and guts” in the line “If I say that sex and guts made you into a star” to “sex and sex,” the laughs were plentiful. Hey, an extra helping of sex never hurts.

Debbie Gravitte & Klea Blackhurst
Lee Roy Reams & Amra-Faye Wright
Amra-Faye Wright

The bouncy and energized “It’s Today” is always a great song to begin a show, as Blackhurst did in Act I. Well, why not start Act II the same way? One of the amazing and perhaps lesser known facets of Jerry Herman is—several times in his career—he composed a completely new set of lyrics to a tried-and-true melody, and the finished product of the newer song was able to stand on its own. Such is the case with “There Is No Tune Like a Showtune” from the Herman revue, Nightcap. Listen up, and you’ll hear the music of “It’s Today.” Pairing the sexy and svelte Amra-Faye Wright with the returning Lee Roy Reams gave Act II its exhilarating kick-off. For Broadway buffs, the number included some shout-outs to songs from non-Herman scores, including “Another Opening, Another Show,” “Luck Be a Lady,” and “Swanee.” The duo’s voices melded into a marvelous blend.

Then it was Wright’s turn for a solo, on “I Don’t Want to Know” from Dear World, a show in which Herman gave voice to literature’s Madwoman of Chaillot. She started off quiet and let her voice build to a rousing crescendo. Accompanied only by Mark Hummel on piano—who also provided the arrangement—she held us in the palm of her hand.

Christine Pedi

Well-known for her Forbidden Broadway send-ups and superstar imitations—her Liza is a must-hear—Christine Pedi presented us with the unexpected…herself. She performed a subtle, alluring version of “Dancing” from Hello, Dolly!  The slower tempo gave us the chance to hear the colors of her voice. Very pretty.

After recounting the time when she met Herman and later auditioned for Mack and Mabel in a community theater production, she then sung a Herman rarity, “The Spring of Next Year” from Dear World. Relating this song to today’s global warming and climate change, midway through, Pedi opted to incorporate her impressive soprano voice but then add a stubborn cough, a would-be byproduct of the environment. It was a risky, mildly humorous if not entirely welcomed choice. In her first song, it was a delight to hear Pedi as Pedi. I was secretly wishing that, for this next one, she would bring out some of those famous voices (Liza, Bernadette, Eartha et al) she does like nobody’s business.

Celia Berk

Partnered with Jon Weber’s impeccable piano playing, Celia Berk delivered a straightforward version of “It Only Takes a Moment,” no vocal gymnastics or tricks, just her lovely voice and phrasing of the lyrics as Herman wrote them, and it was outstanding. Host Blackhurst reminded us after the song that the titular robot in the film WALL-E, alone in the world, listened to this song repeatedly on a videotape of Hello, Dolly! to learn what love is. On this evening, Berk taught us.

Renee Katz

If “It Only Takes a Moment” is about having found love, “Ribbons Down My Back”—another famous ballad from Dolly—is about the hope of finding it. Herman is an expert at expressing love in all its stages. Renee Katz, in her illustrious soprano, amplified the hope and longing as the song progressed. She brought Herman’s message to vivid life. Once again, all that was needed to go with her performance was John M. Cook’s masterful piano.

Kristoffer Lowe

Kristoffer Lowe is clearly a welcome guest at the Cabaret Convention. This was his fifth appearance. With his smooth tenor, he sang “I Won’t Send Roses” from Mack and Mabel, and in his prelude, shared that the show opened 44 years ago this week.  Lowe took genuine ownership of this song by changing just one word. Instead of singing “dress” in the original line, “I won’t remember which dress you wore,” he sang “tie.” Like I said, genuine. And his vocal was flawless.

Marianne Meringolo

Marieann Meringolo, in black with a sparkling bracelet, was the very picture of “Elegance.” But that’s a different Jerry Herman song. On this night, she was here to sing “Time Heals Everything” from Mack and Mabel. The song builds in emotionalism, with a profound lyrical caveat…time heals everything “but loving you.” Meringolo has a voice with the beauty, range, and power to tap into the kind of heartbreak Herman was writing about. She is known for thrilling her audiences, and at this year’s Cabaret Convention, she did not disappoint. Bravo, Marieann!

Christine Jimenez

Blackhurst presented Christina Jimenez, a recent graduate from the Professional Performing Arts High School, with the newly-established Adele & Larry Elow American Songbook High School Competition Award. When the precocious Jimenez then belted “Wherever He Ain’t” (Mack and Mabel) with her clear-as-a-bell voice, she showed us why she deservedly won the award. This kid is going places.

Klea Blackhurst has an affinity for Ethel Merman, having paid homage to her in the recent past. On this night, she recalled how Hello, Dolly! was actually written with Merman in mind, along with some songs that were cut from the show—until Merman finally took on the role. One song, “World Take Me Back,” was initially replaced by the similarly-themed “Before the Parade Passes By.” But Merman wanted to sing both. And so did Blackhurst! Her knockout delivery on both songs gave night three of the Cabaret Convention its dynamic and optimistic ending. It may have been autumn, but there was a definite spring in her step.

Special thank you to Jason Martin of the Mabel Mercer Foundation for my front row seat…and the consideration you showed.

Todd Sussman

Todd Sussman is a graduate of Columbia University, where he studied journalism and film. A longtime entertainment writer, he is the author of the Blockbuster Video books, The Greatest Movies of All Time, Volumes 1 & 2. He began his writing career as the film critic for The Miami News and soon became the editor of Blockbuster Video Magazine. For his work on the magazine, Todd received an Addy Award for Best In-House Publication, one of several Addy honors he holds. The Walt Disney Company commissioned him to write an interview promoting the film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (for which Todd wrote the questions as well as the answers, in character as the beloved Roger Rabbit). He had the privilege of working as the Liner Notes Editor on the following projects for Barbra Streisand: Encore (her 11th Number One album), Release Me 2 (with various collector editions), and her tour program for The Music…The Mem’ries…The Magic! He also edited the liner notes for: A Capitol Christmas - Volumes 1 & 2, Neil Diamond’s Classic Diamonds, Nat King Cole & Friends’ A Sentimental Christmas, and Kristin Chenoweth’s Happiness Is Christmas. Recent cover stories for Cabaret Scenes include Johnny Mathis, Kristin Chenoweth, and Stephen Schwartz.