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Bistro 2000!

Celebrating its 15th anniversary and kicking off Cabaret Month with gusto, the Feb. 28 Back Stage Bistro Awards once again proved quite fortuitous for cabaret in Manhattan. As part of the team "putting it together" at the Supper Club, I witnessed much of the articulate and frenetic planning that led up to this joyous happening. It may be a clich , but I repeatwhat a swell party it was!

Unlike the MAC Awards (which take place this year at Town Hall on April 9), the Bistros announce the winners in advance, and the spirit of the non-competitive show is mainly about the flourishing cabaret scene and the outstanding work of some rising performers. The audience gets to see a potpourri of club artists who are being honored for the past year's accomplishments. The Bistros have always been cited for spirit and heart, and for not confining themselves to a limited number of entries in each category.

Produced with great style by Back Stage Editor in Chief Sherry Eaker, the evening was imaginatively and skillfully directed by Thomas Mills. This clearly turned into one of the year's best-produced cabaret shows. The sold-out event was packed, both with members of the cabaret community and cabaret-lovers. While the performers were all thoroughly entertaining, I believe the evening's irrefutable highlights were the three Special Awards-Ruby Rims for Teddycare, his 10-year-old organization benefiting hospital and AIDS wards patients; John Wallowitch and Bertram Ross for years of delighting audiences with their sophisticated entertainment and vaudeville-like cabaret style; and Karen Miller, Erv Raible, and Rochelle Seldin, owners of Eighty Eight's, the legendary downtown cabaret Mecca that closed last May after 12 years of presenting brand-new, seasoned, and star performers-and the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Thankfully acknowledging the support that Teddycare receives, and the generosity of the audiences at the December fund-raisers, Ruby Rims praised the more than 300 performers who have participated, and acknowledged his gifted musical director, John MacMahon. While ailing Bertram Ross was unable to attend, his partner, John Wallowitch, brought trenchant meaning to his own "This Moment," singing from the piano in one of the evening's most touching moments.

Speaking of emotion, the place almost exploded with a wildly thunderous ovation that wouldn't quit when Erv, Karen, and Rochelle appeared at the podium to accept their award for Eighty Eight's. After Erv's upbeat and piercing thank-yous, Karen and Rochelle recalled everyone from Liza Minnelli on down dropping in to sing a few songs in the piano bar, or "a newcomer who could hardly speak in front of a microphone, bringing the house down with one song."

These three very special awards will long be remembered. Who can forget such an outpouring of emotions from a community that supports its own with so much love?

Sherry Eaker introduced "one of the great ladies of musical theatre-Chita Rivera," who presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Bobby Short. She pointed out Short's impressive achievements and milestones over an unprecedented cabaret career. Humbly referring to himself as a "just a saloon singer," Short acknowledged the love and support of a long list of old friends, including Duke Ellington, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Judy Garland.

The evening offered many varieties of talent. It's almost impossible to point out the many highlights, but I'll focus here on some exceptionally noteworthy moments. Sally Mayes opened the festivities with a campy parody of "Adelaide's Lament" from "Guys and Dolls," aptly renamed "Cabaret Artist's Lament," and written by Thomas Mills. On the final chorus, a cavalcade of past Bistro winners from 1985 to 1999 paraded on stage. Tony winner Faith Prince followed with a perfect dynamite delivery of "Some People." Carlos Mart"n's fiercely passionate "El Amor" and Alexandra Haas' potent reading of "Anyone Who Had a Heart" in English and Portuguese were bravura turns adding a continental touch to the evening. These three striking performances set the evening's top-notch tone.

Andspeaking of top-notch-brilliant comic Jim David once again served as emcee. As he did last year, David kept the pace moving with his spitfire barbs and riotous anecdotes. Baby Jane Dexter's sizzling delivery of Tom Andersen's "Play Your Song for Me Blues," which received an award for Outstanding Special Material, was a big hit. David Gurland's soulful pop transcription of "At Last" was great. Singer Dane Vannatter's haunting "Suddenly Last Summer" created a particularly special moment. With Bill Charlap on piano and Jay Leonhart on bass, Paula West was exquisite singing "Cow Cow Boogie." Dynamite pop singer Lennie Watts rocked the house with "Love Me Like a Rock," perfectly capping off one of cabaret's most prestigious and exciting events.

While I have more to say, I'll have to save it for my next column. After such a whirlwind evening and the post-show madness that accompanies a gala such as this, I'm too pooped to pop. Sorry.

Making big waves over at The FireBird is 23-year-old Kane Alexander, Australia's latest rookie singer to burst on the scene. Half the town was already singing his praises, following his smashing debut last week in his show "No Matter What Happens." His impressive voice and winning stage presence clearly make him a promising talent. Judging by what I saw on opening night, the sky's the limit for this Down Under country boy in an eclectic show directed by Les Solomon.

Let me say, right off the top, that this is not a perfect cabaret "act." Alexander may have erred by offering some material unsuitable for his age and very youthful stage attitude. (After opening with "Listen to My Heart," where does one go?) Too, Annie Dinerman's reflective "Child in Me Again" in medley with Tom Brown's "Jonathan Wesley Oliver, Jr.," while well sung, calls for more depth and life experience than one so young can really offer.

That aside, I can gleefully say that Alexander had some amazing moments in his show. His very colorful voice is big and expressive. This was most evident on a pop ballad called "Please Don't Ask Me" that was heartfelt and riveting. He offers an earnest, introspective rendition of "This Nearly Was Mine" that was very effective. Yet I found him particularly strong on lighter material that showed off his kid-like personality-as on "Penny in My Pocket," a song unwisely dropped from "Hello, Dolly!," and a very playful ditty called "Jindyworroback," which he sang jubilantly with a silly, embellished Australian accent while deftly accompanying himself on spoons.

Alexander's stories of the tiny town where he was born and his youth are amusing and totally captivating. That, plus a generous smile and wacky sense of fun, ultimately make this a sensational bow in the States. Go! He's at FireBird Wednesdays and Thursdays, at 11 pm, through March 9. q

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