Mabel Mercer Foundation: Look to the Rainbow: The Songs of Yip Harburg

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Mabel Mercer Foundation

Look to the Rainbow: The Songs of Yip Harburg

Jazz at Lincoln Center, Rose Theater, NYC, October 26, 2022

Reviewed by Bart Greenberg

E.Y. “Yip” Harburg was one of the great lyricists of both Broadway and Hollywood. He could be romantic (“Let’s See What Happens”), whimsical (“If I Were King of the Forest”), and downright hysterical (“Lydia, the Tattooed Lady”). He was so prolific that none of these three songs were included in a dazzling evening in celebration of his work. This was the first night of the 33rd New York Cabaret Convention, produced by the Mabel Mercer Foundation and held, as it traditionally is, at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center. A stellar list of cabaret stars and newcomers presented one number each (with an occasional medley), which kept the evening moving along. With her usual graciousness, Andrea Marcovicci hosted the evening with an appropriate mix of wit and energy. Jeff Harnar was supposed to co-host, but he was sadly sidetracked with a Covid diagnosis. Alex Rybeck and Jon Weber on piano, Steve Doyle on bass, and Dan Gross on drums formed the official trio that provided expert musical background, with other musicians joining in on specific numbers.

Kicking off the evening was a brilliantly arranged version of “Over the Rainbow” (music by Harold Arlen) that blended rock and jazz to give new freshness to the classic standard. It was sung by Clearly Now (Lina Koutrakis, Marcus Simeone, and Sean Harkness, who also provided his guitar skills in support of various performers during the evening). After Marcovicci glided onstage to a bit of “Something Sort of Grandish” (music by Burton Lane), she read an e-mail from Tovah Feldshuh in which she apologized for not being able to make it uptown between two performances of Funny Girl. But Feldshuh was able to reach down to purgatory to find a replacement for the evening, and she barged on stage as the one and only Tallulah Bankhead, martini glass and cigarette in hand.

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She delivered a barrage of one-liners and sang the somewhat random lyrics of “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich” (Lane), and even indulged in a bit of scatting. If the rest of the cast hadn’t been so strong, then the highlight of the night might have come right at the start.
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Ann Kittredge collaborated with Harkness for an effortless crystal-clear version of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” (Lane). Danny Bacher set aside his saxophone to delight with “If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/Nerve” (Arlen). He clearly enjoyed the wit of the lyrics and even offered a charming soft shoe while bemoaning that he was forbidden from using his taps on the stage floor). Marissa Mulder shared a bittersweet memory of her grandfather before performing the song he introduced her to, “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (Harburg/Billy Rose/Arlen). Her rendition was jazzy, but it also served the lyrics, and was remarkably sexy as well. Michael-Denby Cain followed with a fiery delivery of “Down with Love” (Arlen).

An intense Ari Axelrod then shifted the show to a powerful place when he spoke of Harburg’s political activities, especially about his dedication to battling anti-Semitism. His complex mashup of “The Silent Spring” (Arlen) and “Adrift on a Star” (Jacques Offenbach) put the audience in an emotional trance. Madalynn Mathews, the youngest performer on stage, made her Cabaret Convention debut (as had Axelrod) and presented the most obscure song of the evening, the unpublished “Love Being What It Is” (Phil Springer). The teenager displayed impressive self-possession as she performed the torchy number, but perhaps lacked the maturity to totally pull it off. The third debut was that of Andrew Walesch, who brought a swinging lounge style to “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love” (Lane). The legendary Karen Akers entertained with an inevitable song about Paris, “Paris Is a Lonely Town” (Arlen). This was the last lyric Harburg wrote for Judy Garland, and she delivered every single torchy note for the audience to relish.

A fierce and hyper-dramatic version of one of Harburg’s darkest lyrics, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” (Jay Gorney), was given by Marta Sanders. Then a grandly gowned Leanna Borghesi peeled the wallpaper off the walls with her torchy “Satan’s Little Lamb” (Arlen). These two ladies returned later as The Show Broads, looking like two Ziegfeld showgirls who had spent a bit too much time on the road and sang the witty “Napoleon” (Arlen). After that, the too-rarely-seen-on-the-East-Coast Maude Maggart presented a gentle, effervescent “Look to the Rainbow” (Lane). Keeping to the Finian’s Rainbow score, Todd Murray offered a robust version of “Old Devil Moon” (Lane).

With quiet dignity and great warmth, Paula Dione Ingram sang the gorgeous “Right as the Rain” (Arlen), after which Elena Bennett, accompanied by Fred Barton, added a throaty purr to another obscure Harburg lyric that he wrote for “Kill Me.” The elegant Anna Bergman presented a medley of “What Is There to Say?” (Vernon Duke) and “Here’s to Your Illusions” (Sammy Fain), which was a perfect fit of singer and song. Frisky fun with a smooth gospel sound followed as Those Girls attacked “The Begat” (Lane) with grand harmony.

Marcovicci took time to present The Mabel Award for outstanding cabaret achievement to her absent co-host Harnar. The vocal stylist Christian Holder, with Weber at the piano, offered a three- o’clock-in-the-morning rendition of “Last Night When We Were Young” (Arlen). The host of the evening returned to drape herself across a chair and offered a sultry and slightly tongue-in-cheek number originally created for the landmark torch singer Helen Morgan, “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man” (Gorney). Josephine Sanges brought the thrilling evening to a close with a swinging, a high-powered, high-speed version of “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” (Arlen) that also allowed pianist John Cook, Doyle, and Gross to take show-off solos. It was an electrifying finale.

Bart Greenberg

Bart Greenberg first discovered cabaret a few weeks after arriving in New York City by seeing Julie Wilson and William Roy performing Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter outdoors at Rockefeller Center. It was instant love for both Ms. Wilson and the art form. Some years later, he was given the opportunity to create his own series of cabaret shows while working at Tower Records. "Any Wednesday" was born, a weekly half-hour performance by a singer promoting a new CD release. Ann Hampton Callaway launched the series. When Tower shut down, Bart was lucky to move the program across the street to Barnes & Noble, where it thrived under the generous support of the company. The series received both The MAC Board of Directors Award and The Bistro Award. Some of the performers who took part in "Any Wednesday" include Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock, Tony Desare, Andrea Marcovicci, Carole Bufford, the Karens, Akers, Mason and Oberlin, and Julie Wilson. Privately, Greenberg is happily married to writer/photographer Mark Wallis, who as a performance artist in his native England gathered a major following as "I Am Cereal Killer."