There is no argument that Mabel Mercier was the most influential cabaret artist of the 20th century. Born in Staffordshire, England, in 1900. Her mother was a popular music hall artist and her father was a traveling African-American musician who died before she was born. In the early 1930s Mabel Mercier was the toast of Parisian nightlife, celebrated by people like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Cole porter. During World War II, she emigrated to the United States, where she also rose to fame in New York. She has influenced many of America’s most popular singers. Frank Sinatra was quite open in saying that he was imitating most of his sentences. She invented many of the conventions that still make up American cabaret, including its austere intimacy. She has performed in all of the top venues in America, Canada and Europe, even running her own club at one point. Whether they know it or not, all modern practitioners of the art of cabaret owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Mabel Mercier.
The Mabel Mercier Foundation is a non-profit organization that was established the year after Mercer’s death in 1984. The group was formed to keep its memory alive and to promote the art of cabaret by offering performances to audiences that could not. normally not attend the cabaret. Their outreach includes a youth series that introduces young audiences to the classics of The Great American Songbook. Each year the Mabel Mercier The Foundation organizes several evenings of concerts in its Cabaret Convention. After hosting a virtual event last year due to Covid, The Cabaret Convention is celebrating its 32nd edition this week at the Rose Theater in Columbus Circle with a wonderfully live audience. I had the chance to attend the final concert last night, which celebrated the work of the prolific composer Irving Berlin.
The event, MEMORY WAIT: A GALA HOMAGE TO SONGS BY Irving Berlin was a gathering of some of the biggest names in the cabaret world. There’s something a little odd about celebrating the intimate art of cabaret in a Broadway-sized theater like Rose Hall, but to be fair it was one of the few venues large enough to accommodate all. cabaret fans who came to see this beautiful collection of talented artists. There were performances of Sandy stewart, Jeff harner, Andrea Marcovicci, Eric Yves Garcia, Karen Oberlin, David LaMarr, Nathalie Douglas, Stacy Sullivan & Todd Murray, Karen Akers, Steve ross, Amra Faye Wright, Klea blackhurst, Billy Stritch, Aïcha de Haas, Christine Andréas, Sidney myer, Karen mason, Nicholas King, Marc Nadler, and the Moipai triplets. In addition to these wonderful performers, we were treated to some of New York’s best musicians including Ray Marchicka, Steve doyle, Jon weber, Bill charlap, Darnell White, Alex rybeck, Marc Hummel, Michael Rice, and Tracy stark.
Two highlights of the evening were the presentation of a few prizes. The Julie wilson The award was presented to David LaMarr for his tireless work on behalf of the diversity so necessary in the cabaret. The 2021 Mabel Prize was awarded to Karen Akers in recognition of his illustrious career. The evening was to be animated by the wonderful KT Sullivan, who also organized the entire concert. But due to an illness in the family, she was unable to attend. In his absence, Jeff harner brilliantly stepped in as host of the evening. In a very moving moment at the end of the concert, he asked the whole troupe as well as the audience to join him in Irving Berlinthe patriotic hymn of “God Bless America”. He pulled out his phone and filmed the event to send it to KT Sullivan so she could see how her concert affected the audience. It was a beautiful moment of live theater.
There were too many performers for me to describe all the beautiful moments. But at the risk of offending, I’ll mention some of my very personal favorites. Karen Oberlin gave us a very sassy performance of “Pack Up Your Sins”. Karen Akers told a beautiful story about her mother singing lullabies to her as a child. She sang one of Berlin’s lesser-known arias “Russian Lullaby” as an example. Not only was her performance great, but she sang one of the verses in Russian. The arrangement by Alex rybeck was pretty haunting. Nathalie Douglas gave us a beautifully acted scene in “You Can Have Him”. Amra Faye Wright gave us a very sensual “There is no business like show business.”
In act 2 (yes there was an intermission) Klea blackhurst gave us a catchy rendition of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. Billy Stritch created magic with “Let’s face music and dance”. Aïcha de Haas brought Berlin to the fore with “Harlem on My Mind”. My favorite part of the evening was Christine Andréas‘performance of “I got lost in his arms” by Annie take your gun. Her patter was perfect, her singing was stellar and she sounded like a million bucks. Sidney myer gave a fabulously ironic read of “I’m a Bad, Bad Man”, also from Annie take your gun. Karen mason brought his brand passion to “How Deep is the Ocean?” And a delightful surprise was a performance by the Moipai Triplets, which brought beautiful harmonies to “Count Your Blessings” and I Got the Sun in the Morning. “
If I was picky, I would have preferred less ballads and a more sustained pace, and Marc NadlerThe ill-chosen patter of his made his marvelous interpretation of “I Love a Piano” less brilliant. The joy of this concert was the person who did not appear on stage. The real star of the night was Irving Berlin. The variety of its prolific catalog is a marvel. Hearing nearly 3 hours of his music at a time is a lesson in the history of American music. Berlin was not only an extraordinary writer, he was a living example of the immigrant experience, as Mabel Mercier himself. A big thank you to KT Sullivan and the Mabel Mercier Foundation for choosing such an American icon to salute.
Make a donation to support the work of the Mabel Mercier Foundation, please visit mabelmercer.org.