“Autumn in New York” made a picturesque setting for opening night of the 14th annual cabaret convention, producer Donald Smith’s affectionate all-star homage to legendary chanteuse Mabel Mercer. Sylvia McNair offered a sweetly framed performance of Vernon Duke’s autumnal Gotham landscape (this year marks the centennial celebration of the Russian composer born Vladimir Dukelsky). McNair credited George Gershwin with suggesting the pseudonym Vernon Duke.
Set at a friskier tempo than usual, McNair sang “I Can’t Get Started,” the Duke-Ira Gershwin standard, first heard in a 1936 edition of “Ziegfeld Follies” and introduced by Bob Hope and Eve Arden.
Another fanciful Duke ditty is “Honey in the Honeycomb,” from “Cabin in the Sky.” A perky KT Sullivan rendered the teasing invitation, “There’s jelly in the jelly roll.” Joined by her vigorously manic accompanist Mark Nadler, Sullivan sang the saucy confessional of a black-widow wife, “To Keep My Love Alive,” by Rodgers & Hart. The duo is off shortly to France for a Paris debut.
In his convention bow, composer-lyricist Ray Jessell performed his outrageously witty musical portrait of Albert Einstein, “Me, I’m a Genius!,” and an irreverent, but funny nod to Shirley Temple.
Nifty jazz diva Ann Hampton Callaway, who has appeared at every cabaret festival since 1990, sang a soulful “Blue Moon.” Taking random words and phrases from the audience — i.e., “chips and dips,” “blue lights,” “devastating” — she created her own passionate cabaret love song.
Australian baritone Kane Alexander sang a Mabel Mercer signature tune, the reflectively haunting torch hymn “These Foolish Things.” Alexander has a rich voice with a booming top. If his perf was a tad overly dramatic, the song brought back a flood of tender memories.
The stately Karen Akers revived the songs she introduced as the original Luisa (long-suffering wife of the unfaithful Guido) in Broadway’s “Nine” in 1982. Akers cuts to the emotional core of “My Husband Makes Movies” and “Be On Your Own” with savvy theatricality.
Producer Donald Smith, founder of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, is cabaret’s wunderkind and best friend. He has almost single-handedly kept the flame burning for the past quarter-century in Manhattan, Chicago and San Francisco. With all due respect to Kander & Ebb, Smith’s clarion call is “Your table’s waiting. … come to the cabaret!”