When veteran cabaret thrush Julie Wilson took the stage at Town Hall, surrounded by 10 young men — all established Manhattan entertainers — it looked much like one of those classy outtakes from a vintage MGM screen musical. The song was Stephen Sondheim’s “Old Friends,” a fit opener for an evening when the Big Apple club community salutes its own. The MAC awards, sponsored by the Manhattan Assn. of Cabaret and Clubs, is to New York night life what Tony is to the Broadway stage and Oscar is to the movies. While not nearly as old as those venerable award ceremonies, the MACs have edged their way in recent years to a presentation ceremony of distinction. The 14th annual edition gathered such prestigious presenters as Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera, Lucie Arnaz, Karen Akers and Annie Ross.
The elegant septuagenarian Wilson, who also nailed the major female vocalist award, could not have offered a more warming greeting than the Sondheim tune from “Merrily We Roll Along.” Accompanied by a classy supporting team that included Philip Officer, Tom Anderson and Jeff Harner, among others, she lost no time turning the house into an affectionate love-in with her opening toast “Here’s to us!”
A native of the Lone Star state, syndicated columnist Liz Smith reminded the audience that “they never heard of cabaret in Texas” and quipped, “All we had was rodeo!” Smith presented the lifetime achievement award to Bobby Short, whom she recalled first seeing at Chicago’s Black Orchid in 1953.
Inspired by such legendary entertainers as Hildegarde, Fred Astaire and Mabel Mercer, Short, who is celebrating his 31st season at Manhattan’s Cafe Carlyle, lost little time in demonstrating his remarkable finesse in the fine art of popular song. Reaching back a trifling 65 years into the great American songbook, Short displayed his cunning mastery of romanticism with the Vernon Duke classic “I Can’t Get Started” — preciously faithful to the playful original Ira Gershwin lyrics — and framed Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” in a racing tempo. Mr. Short’s boldly flavorful piano attack and that familiar scratchy yet seductive singing style set the standard for all who followed.
Pianist Bobby Peaco, who won the piano bar award, set Fats Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumpin’ ” at a feverish pace, and Karen Mason belted “I Can See It” from the durable “The Fantasticks” with typical Broadway gusto. Bob Cuccioli, former star of “Jekyll and Hyde,” who is currently making his major club debut at Arci’s Place, sang “Larger Than Life” from the 1992 Broadway tuner “My Favorite Year.” Cuccioli scored big with his dashing nostalgic trip to the movies with Saturday afternoon memories of Errol Flynn and swashbuckling adventure on the bigscreen.
Barry Manilow, who was honored with the MAC board of directors award, recalled his early cabaret days in New York, some three decades ago, as accompanist for the likes of Margaret Whiting, Bernadette Peters, Andrea Marcovicci and, of course, playing at the Continental Baths for Bette Midler. It was nice to find the composer all alone and unaccompanied at a portable keyboard, sailing through a medley of some of the ditties composed for commercials and a few phrases from early pop hits. Winding up with Rupert Holmes’ “Studio Musician,” Manilow made a fitting evening closer for an industry salute to the untiring sidemen.
If you own your own venue, there’s a good chance of winning an award, though no one would deny Michael Feinstein the major male vocalist honor (he headlines at Feinstein’s at the Regency). Other top kudos went to Billy Stritch as major jazz performer, Australian legit star David Campbell and composer John Bucchino for special production and Anne Hampton Callaway, of Broadway’s “Swing,” for major recording of the year.
Eric Comstock accepted the revue of the year award for “Our Sinatra,” a one-night tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes that turned into a two-week Oak Room engagement at the Algonquin and subsequently an open-ended run at the Blue Angel Theater, where the show has racked up over 100 performances. The “silver fox” and former MAC prexy Jamie deRoy won awards for recording of the year (“The Child in Me”) and for the variety production “Jamie deRoy and Friends” at the Laurie Beechman Theater.
Considering its confined area appeal, the MAC awards show, which clocked in at just under three hours, appears to be getting its act together. Many of the nominees and winners project a low national profile, but the high-priced ticketed event was a Town Hall sellout, proving that Gotham takes pride in supporting its own.