I find it impossible to go to the New York Cabaret Convention held in Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center without thinking of its congenial founder, the late Donald F. Smith, the cabaret visionary who originally launched the convention under the auspices of the Mabel Mercer Foundation. Time moves on, and now the annual host is the Foundation’s artistic director, the renowned singer KT Sullivan, who launched this year’s series, starting with the gala opening (October 18, 2016) and followed by performances Oct. 19, 20 and 21.
Sullivan, known for her finery and especially her great hat collection, made a flashy appearance in one outfit, intriguing chapeau included, and then for the second act, she appeared in another outfit and hat change. The audience has by now become accustomed to KT as the face of the convention and, judging by the applause, enjoys her fashion introduction each year. After taking her bow, she also sang impressively.
The nearly three-hour concert was richly endowed with an array of performers, seasoned and new. Two of my favorites were among them.
Christina Bianco is not only a cabaret treasure but she has achieved international fame thanks to her uncanny ability to impersonate woman entertainers with dead-on accuracy. On YouTube she has been watched by thousands upon thousands. For her convention appearance she took the song “Cabaret” and demonstrated satirically how various singers would perform it, starting with an amazing imitation of Barbra Streisand in both voice and style. She was also spot-on with Judy Garland, Patti LuPone, Kristin Chenoweth, Bernadette Peters and others. Bianco, also an actress, is a showstopper, as she was on this occasion.
Another of my favorites is superbly talented Carole J. Bufford, who looked great in a clinging dress that if it were any tighter would have sueezed her out of it. Her song of the night was “St. James Infirmary,” and I’ve never heard it sung like that before. She got real funky, southern and bluesy, and tore into the lyrics with low-down passion, sometimes at high decibels. Bufford was a knockout, vocally and visually.
I also always enjoy Barbara Fasano, who as often is the case, was accompanied by Eric Comstock, terrific at the piano in his own right. (They are also married). She sang her pleasing interpretation of the number “Old Photographs.”
The most impressive among newcomers was Josephine Bianco, who at only the age of 15, wowed the crowd with her rendition of “People.” Given its difinitive performance by Barbra Streisand and efforts by so many others, for a singer so young to try it was indeed a challenge. But Bianco brought something new to the number, reaching deeply into it to find the feelings within the lyrics and music and the result was intense sensitivity. Her talent was especially impressive-- a highllght of the night.
There’s nobody quite like the veteran Vivian Reed, who burned up the stage with her “Believe in Yourself” from the musical “The Wiz.” Maureen McGovern is an icon who also knows how to put over a song with beauty and individuality, as she demonstrated with the well-worn “Over the Rainbow.” She sang it without a mike, and the lyrics left her lips with perfection and strength in the large, hushed hall.
On the jam-packed program were Matt Baker, Natalie Douglas, Karen Oberlin, Stacy Sullivan (KT’s sister), Stefan Bednarczyk, T. Oliver Reid, Eric Yves Garcia, Kim David Smith and others.
Each year awards are given, and this time the Mabel Mercer Award was presented by KT Sullivan to Maureen McGovern and the Donald F. Smith Award to Natalie Douglas. At Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Ceenter. Reviewed October 20, 2016.