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Bistro Bits : As Good as It Gets

By John Hoglund

THE 12TH ANNUAL MANHATTAN ASSOCIATION of Cabarets & Clubs Awards (MAC) were held on April 19, at Manhattan Center's Hammerstein Ballroom. About 800 people gathered at this annual gala that pays tribute to live entertainment in nightclubs. Former winners and celebrities presented the awards in a ceremony that lasted a little more than two and a half hours.

The festive evening turned into an incredible outpouring of love and support for cabaret, fusing moments of sharp comedy and pathos by presenters and winners. Awards were given out in 34 competitive categories, with a Board of Directors Award presented to composer Sheldon Harnick and a Lifetime Achievement Award presented to jazz icons Jackie & Roy.

In one of the evening's funniest moments, zany comic Mario Cantone, accepting his award, bellowed, "I have eight of these things--and no career! It's like winning a Tony for best supporting role--then you're never heard from again!" This year's Bistro- and MAC-winner comedian Jim David quipped, "Winning! It's all about the stroking!" Drama-Logue critic Scott Siegel, presenting the Hanson Award to Jeanne MacDonald, commented that critics shouldn't sing "Unless they're Wayman Wong"; then he sang a twangy parody of "The Impossible Dream" that was hysterical.

On the more serious side, singer-songwriter Tom Andersen, whose '80s-inspired AIDS song "Yard Sale" won for Song of the Year, dedicated his award to "People who had their own yard sales and the people who bought at them." And, winning the Major Female Pop/Rhythm & Blues Vocalist Award, Baby Jane Dexter summed it up best, saying, "There is no time clock, no competition we all have the same dream."

And so it went. Heartfelt outpourings of love and gratitude to so many who make up New York's cabaret community. In terms of heart, this year's MAC Awards ceremony continued the tradition set by the founding fathers of MAC and carried on in spades today by the board of directors--of which, I'm proud to say, I've been a member for more than 11 years. I could go on and on about the many important moments of cabaret greatness that took place last Sunday. I saw torches passed to rising performers, and seasoned veterans being honored. Everyone was touched by the thunderous standing ovation that Julie Wilson received when she won as Major Female Vocalist, and told today's rising performers, "Just keep doing it--anytime, anywhere. Your joy reaches us!"

TRIBUTE SHOWS HAVE TAKEN THEIR PLACE AS an integral part of cabaret. I caught two such acts at Eighty Eight's recently.

In "Dietrich Hotel," Michel Hermon successfully recreated the decadence and conundrum associated with Berlin's cabaret in the 1930s. He is a spellbinding performer who rivets the audience with every subtle inflection in a show that is anything but subtle.

Using his knowledge as a director and performer in Europe, he designed an hour of flirtatious drama, pungent memories, and pure camp in his salute to Marlene Dietrich. In fact, when he sings "Illusions," a Dietrich trademark, early on in his show, it is almost like incidental music to the sexuality and seductiveness that is to come. Hermon gives a brilliant performance of startling power. Like Dietrich, he has a certain androgynous quality that never gets in the way of his performance--it enhances it. This is especially true when, in high heels and a garter belt, he changes poses on the piano exactly the way Dietrich once did. He creates an image that is brooding and full of rich imagery. Singing in a sometimes coarse, smoldering voice, Hermon is a very effective vocalist who perfectly suggests Dietrich at her most captivating. The songs become canvases for images of this enigmatic legend. The audience response was so strong and sustained, he was, virtually, forced back to do a second encore. "Dietrich Hotel" closed Wed., April 22.

IN HIS NEW SHOW, "BY GUMM A GARLAND Event," directed by Barry Kleinbort and musically directed by Paul Greenwood, the versatile Gary Lyons presents 30 songs that Judy Garland sang during her incredible career. In doing so, this Bistro winner continues to be unique. He also continues to reinvent cabaret. It is all done without trying to impersonate or emulate the star. Quite simply, this is a tribute to some pretty obscure material sung by Garland, assisted occasionally by Katie Guillory, who is featured on duets and backup vocals.

Many of the tunes become head-scratchers--that is, you think you've heard them somewhere, but can't quite place them. Songs like "Hello, Bluebird," "Ten Pins in the Sky," and "Howdy Neighbor, Happy Harvest" are pretty unmemorable. To his credit, Lyons makes such unknown songs quite palpable and effective through a music-hall delivery that works well in this ambitious project. Incorporating all these songs in one form or another in this show is impressive. Whether or not they are all worthy of hearing is another question.

This is no history lesson--on the songs or the singer. Lyons offers few anecdotes on Garland's career, but does refer indelicately to her final unhappy months in 1969. I felt this reference to such a low period of her life, while well documented, was painfully awkward in a show filled with happiness. More detail was called for if such a reference was to be made. The audience is left hanging a bit as to what really happened to this superstar who in '69 was being written about as someone with a substance-abuse problem.

I briefly knew Garland during her last three years; therefore it is hard for me to be totally unprejudiced on the subject of her decline and ultimate demise. That said, I can state with conviction that Gary Lyons' show pays mostly joyful homage to Garland. His exuberance and talent remain unique and his artistry, as I've said before, is still devilishly funny. The fact that he would attempt such uncharted territory, centering on one so famous for singing more conventional songs, is to his credit. This show, by one of today's most interesting and stylish cabaret performers, is worth catching. He is at Eighty Eight's, Wednesdays, at 8:00 pm, and Fridays, at 11:00 pm, through April 24.

IN THE CLUBS: The acclaimed "Dangerous Duets," starring Jeff Loeffelholz and Michael Tidd, will do a one-nighter to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, at The Triad, on Sun., April 26, at 10 pm . Jazz legend Betty Carter is at the Blue Note, through April 26, at 9 pm and 11:30 pm . "Make Your Own Party," a musical revue with Marcy Heisler, Zina Goldrich, Scott Coulter, and Becky Lillie, is at Don't Tell Mama, Mon., April 27, at 7 pm . Critically acclaimed "Combo Fiasco," the Australian singing trio, makes its U.S. debut at Eighty Eight's, Thurs., April 30, and Fri., May 1, at 8 pm; and Sun., May 3, at 5:30 pm. q


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