The legendary Julie Wilson sat in a box and received the congratulations through song that came from a distinguished roster of performers honoring her on the occasion of her 90th birthday. It was a gala evening (Tuesday, October 21, 2014) as part of the four-performance celebration (October 20-23) by The Mabel Mercer Foundation at the Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center. The Foundation had a milestone of its own-- the 25th anniversary of the Cabaret Convention dedicated to promote cabaret in the spirit of the influence Mercer had on a generation of performers.
Wilson has also had a profound influence as queen of cabaret, as many on the program emphasized in their tributes. The hostess for the evening was singer KT Sullivan, artistic director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation. Those who have attended past conventions, of course, keep the late founder Donald Smith in mind, as he made such an indelible imprint on the cabaret scene.
Wilson, white gardenia in her hair as always, looked very gracious, smiling broadly, and listening intently to the songs, some of which were directed at her, as when Marilyn Maye rocked the hall with “I’m Still Here” and affectionately delivered “I’m Glad There is You.”
An emotional high of the evening came when Wilson’s son, actor Holt McCallany, read a tribute to her from Bill Clinton, added that apart from her talent and achievements, what meant most to him was how good a mother she has been, and then sang “That’s Life” to her. It was the perfect moment to end the evening. But he was followed by Carol Woods, who certainly was appealing, appropriately singing “Don’t Ask a Lady” and “Here’s to Life.” However, adding more icing to the cake was indicative of the talent-jammed event that made for a long program, fueled by the Foundation’s desire to show off as much talent as possible in keeping with its mission.
All of those singing were effective in their respective ways. I had some favorites. Amra-Faye Wright spiced the evening spiritedly singing “Honey Bun” and “Jelly Roll.” Lennie Watts put his own stamp on “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries.” Ditto for Marissa Mulder performing “Most Gentleman Don’t Like Love,” Christine Andreas’s “Bill” and Lauren Fox’s fascinating “Don’t Ever Leave Me.” You can always count on Fox for a highly individual interpretation.
I enjoyed the wonderful Ann Hampton Callaway, who was presented with the Mabel Mercer Award and sang “Someone to Watch Over Me.” After soliciting words from the audience, she put them together to create a special “Julie Song.” Shana Farr was in top form rendering “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” as was Maxine Linehan performing “Sail Away.” Karen Wyman, who has resumed her career after a hiatus, impressively sang “Always,” one of the three numbers she did. Hostess KT Sullivan and her mother Elizabeth charmed with a duet, performing “As Long As We Sing.” Among the evening’s pianists were Billy Stritch, Mark Hummel, Larry Yurman, John Oddo, Steven Ray Watson, Bill Zeffiro, Kenny Asher, Jon Weber, Alex Rybeck, Sterling Overshown, Ryan Shirar, Doyle Newmyer, Tracy Stark and Tex Arnold.
Others whose performances enriched the talent-packed program included Kevin Dozier, T. Oliver Reid, Wayne Hosford, Kevin Spirtas, Tony Sheldon, Cole Rumbough, Marieann Meringolo, Nathan Chang, Corinna Sowers Adler and Deborah Silver. Reviewed October 23, 2014.