By Brian Scott Lipton
It was already dark outside when the 30th New York Cabaret Convention began on Monday night, but there were plenty of stars inside Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center providing a wealth of bright moments for its opening program: “The Sunny Side of the Street: Celebrating Dorothy Fields & Great Women Songwriters.”
As the title suggests, this was a tall order to fill: A mere two and ½ hours was hardly enough time to do full justice to Fields, Betty Comden, Carolyn Leigh, Mary Rodgers, Blossom Dearie and more. Still, host and writer Deborah Grace Winer (dressed in what she called “suffragette white,” in honor of the 120th anniversary year of women getting the right to vote) mostly rose to the challenge. Winer peppered her patter with some truly delicious anecdotes about these ladies –some deeply personal, some told second-hand – and firmly reminded us that these women, not the singers who recorded these numbers, really deserve the lioness’ share of the credit.
Most importantly, however, Winer presented a mostly well-chosen mix of ballads and up-tempo tunes, ranging from such little-known gems as Leigh’s comic ditty “Westport” (smartly performed by two-time Tony winner James Naughton) and the lovely “Look Around” from The Will Rogers Follies (stirringly sung by Tom Wopat), to some more obvious selections such as “I Feel a Song Coming On” (given a zippy rendition by Linda Purl), Peggy Lee’s “I Love Being Here With You” (nicely done by the delightful Stacy Sullivan), and the absolutely haunting “Some Other Time” (gorgeously delivered by Darius De Haas).
While Fields got top billing, the poetic lyrics co-written by the great Marilyn Bergman (along with her husband Alan) somehow stood out above the rest. Nicolas King brought great feeling to the hopeful “You Must Believe in Spring”; Debby Boone offered up an appropriately bittersweet “Where Do You Start”; and the peerless Christine Andreas (who was awarded – to her surprise – the annual Donald F. Smith Award) almost literally brought down the house with a deeply felt “The Summer Knows.”
While I might have been in the minority, I would have liked many more selections from contemporary female songwriters, although I have no complaints about Margo Seibert’s full-throated version of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and La Tanya Hall’s amazingly emotional take on Joni Mitchell’s magnificent “A Case of You.” I also enjoyed hearing the wonderful singer-pianist Karrin Allyson showcase her own lively “Some of that Sunshine.”
Unfortunately, the evening sometimes felt a bit herky-jerky; perhaps presenting the songs chronologically might have given the evening a better flow. And while I have long admired the talent of pianist/musical director Mark Hummel – joined here by the great bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Ray Marchica – I did feel some of the arrangements were unnecessarily fussy.
Still, for all of the evening’s highs and lows, with three nights left to the Cabaret Convention, one can’t know yet if the best is yet to come!
Photos: Maryann Lopinto
Jazz at Lincoln Center – Rose Hall