Bistro Bits: Artist Tributes Highlight the 15th Annual Winter Rhythms Season
Next to the NY Cabaret Convention each October, December’s annual Winter Rhythms festival at Urban Stages, is arguably the most important yearly collection of cabaret performances in the city. I got myself to more WR shows this go-round than I usually do. But I didn’t come close to seeing the whole lineup (which ran December 6-17). I’m sorry to have missed the grand opening-night gala on December 6, featuring singers who were lucky enough to have appeared at the legendary Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. By all accounts, it was terrific.
I did get to seven shows, many of which happened to be tribute shows, saluting everyone from Fanny Brice to Taylor Swift.
Many thanks, producer Sue Matsuki, assistant producer Kati Neiheisel, and Urban Stages founding artistic director Frances Hill for bringing everything together.
Following are some thoughts on the performances I attended.
Striding onto the stage at the top of her show, STING*chronicity, singer Rosemary Loar was greeted with loving hoots and hollers. I imagine that many in the room, unlike me, had seen an earlier incarnation of this show, which has been around for a while. (It’s old enough to have played at the now-defunct Metropolitan Room back when Barack Obama was president.) In the show, Loar lovingly featured the music of Sting (Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner), who became front man for one of the 1980s’ most popular pop acts, the Police, then established a vibrant solo career. The premise of the show (directed by Barry Kleinbort) is rooted in the idea that the thousands of souls gathered at a Police reunion show have taken collective ownership of the Sting/Police musical catalog. In short vignettes punctuated by songs, Loar (who, on one occasion, actually worked as a backup singer for Sting!) provided glimpses into the imagined lives of some of these people: a 13-year old girl who “trains” boys, a sex worker, a trans woman on the eve of gender reassignment surgery, and so on. Some of these characterizations were more incisive than others, but throughout the show, Loar was altogether buoyant, earnest, and likable. She had ample support from music director and pianist Frank Ponzio (who sang a smidgen of “Roxanne”) and bassist Tom Hubbard. Missing in action: the ubiquitous signature song “Every Breath You Take”—but fans who missed it will no doubt hear the Police version again soon, while shopping at Duane Reade or having their teeth cleaned. (12/7)
I was especially happy to see three 2023 Bistro- and MAC-awarded shows resurrected in And the Winner Is… Josephine Sanges, Danny Bolero & Ann Talman. This offering featured truncated versions of tribute shows that celebrated the lives of, respectively, Fanny Brice, Desi Arnaz, and Elizabeth Taylor.
What a pleasure to revisit Sanges’s exquisite “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” Bolero’s lovestruck mashup of two “Lady in Red” songs, and Talman’s warm and winning “Make Someone Happy.” What impressed me most was how effective these shortened versions of the original hourlong programs turned out to be. Musical directors: John Cook for Sanges, Drew Wutke for Bolero, and Alex Rybeck for Talman. (12/7)
In A Dream and a Song: The Musical Stories of Elizabeth Sullivan, singer Celia Berk saluted the music, lyrics, poems, and other creative endeavors from the matriarch of a musical dynasty. Oklahoma-born Elizabeth Sullivan is the mother of KT Sullivan, Stacy Sullivan, and other musical Sullivans. The vivacious Woman of the Hour was there, in person, for this tribute, and she even sang and played one of her selections at the end of the show. Berk, musical director Jon Weber, and director Jeff Harnar gave this remarkable woman’s songbook the royal treatment. Among my favorite titles were “Turn It Around” (a calm but firm warning to a neglectful mate), “Song of the Chimes” (a child’s reverie about all the beautiful things in the world), and the anthemic “Where My Picture Hangs on the Wall.” Weber and Harnar’s musical arrangements were energized with the participation of guitarist Sean Driscoll and violinist Seoyeon Im. Berk, clearly in her element, treated the sentiment and delicacy of the songwriter’s creations with her customary grace and warmth. A Dream and a Song turned out to be one of the most inspiring and heartfelt shows I saw in 2023. (12/8)
She’s not just the Big Kahuna—she’s Bigger. No, she’s the Biggest. She makes cultural icons like Oprah Winfrey or even Elon Musk seem like small fry. Just the other day, she was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” Still, I have yet to give myself over to the ginormous force that is Taylor Swift. There’s no question she has talent and something to say. It’s just that I’ve never felt that she or her songs (unlike, for instance, Lady Gaga’s) were meant for a person my age. I’ll keep my mind and ears open, but what I’ve heard seems a bit on the bubble-gummy side of things. Tom Toce would certainly pooh-pooh my misgivings, however. In the Winter Rhythms show The Songs of Taylor Swift (with production, direction, and musical direction by Toce, along with Michael Lavine), he admits to being a devoted Swifty. For this program, he called on a group of eight young singers (seven women and one man, some of them students at Yale) to create an introductory workshop for those uninitiated in the music and lore of Swift. (He called it Taylor Swift 101.) A couple of these youthful performers stood out. Jillian Mustillo showed poise and vocal prowess, and Hannah Jane demonstrated an easy rapport with her listeners. (NOTE: She had her own country-oriented show later in the Winter Rhythms series—a show I didn’t attend.) There were certain songs in this program that did register positively with this old grouch—“Champagne Problems” and “You Belong with Me” among them. (The latter I’ve heard dozens of times, but I’d never really listened to it closely before.) I think I may like Swift’s more country-tinged material better than her pop-oriented offerings. Anyway, Toce had a wonderful time imparting knowledge about his mega muse. He served as emcee, played guitar on several songs, and sang one number himself: “Betty” (sung from the P.O.V. of a teenage boy who’s cheated on his girlfriend). (12/10)
Bruce Clough has gone through some dark days in recent years (including the loss of family members and a cancer diagnosis). But, in a new show, From Out of the Blues (Lennie Watts, director), he celebrated the therapeutic value of music from the New Orleans region: songs dealing with ’gators and swamp ghosts, chain gangs and deluges. Now cancer-free, he sang a slew of songs from bayou country (where, earlier in life, he spent some quality time). He touched on R&B, funk, swamp music, and rockabilly, paying tribute to the artistry of folks like Louis Armstrong, Big Mama Thornton, Tony Joe White, Dr. John, John Fogerty, and Randy Newman. His funky stylings on Dr. John’s “Right Place Wrong Time” and his powerful take on White’s “Rainy Night in Georgia” stood out. Seemingly a quiet sage of a guy (who can nonetheless wail and holler when it comes down to it), Clough was adeptly supported by musical director Tracy Stark, along with Boo Reiners (guitar), Skip Ward (bass guitar), Don Kelly (drums), and fellow singer Nicole Spano: all-in-all, a mighty cluster of versatile musicians. (12/13)
Like Brian Clough, Elizabeth Hayden-Passero used Winter Rhythms as a launching pad for a return to New York cabaret, following several years away from the scene. She was new to me, but I’m very glad I caught her offering: Swingin’ the Blues Away. Hayden-Passero has a clear, bright voice; an easy, conversational way of delivering lyrics; and a warm, upbeat demeanor. Despite the title, though, she didn’t restrict herself to up-tempo numbers, although when she swang (with songs like the inevitable “Shaking the Blues Away” (Irving Berlin) and a spiffy “Day In Day Out” (Rube Bloom, Johnny Mercer), she truly swang. She and musical director Christopher Denny served up a good share of ballads, including Jerome Kern and Mercer’s “I’m Old Fashioned” and a mashup of Dave Frishberg and Johnny Mandel’s “You Are There” and Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By.” Skip Ward made another festival appearance as bassist. Getting to know Elizabeth Hayden-Passero proved to be a very nice way to wrap up a chilly Thursday evening. Director: Barry Kleinbort (12/14)
Clearly having a proverbial ton of fun, Marcus Simeone and Tracy Stark joined vocal forces to reprise their recently seen Up, Up & Away: The Songs of Jimmy Webb (directed by Lina Koutrakos) for WR—he at the microphone, she at the piano. The pair served the audience a mix of familiar Jimmy Webb titles (“Wichita Lineman,” “Didn’t We”) and relative rarities (“What Does a Woman See in a Man?” “It’s a Sin When You Love Somebody”). I was happy to hear some of my own favorites, including “(The) Worst That Could Happen” and “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.” Simeone and Stark soloed, they duetted, they sang backup for each other. (Their voices blended especially well on “If You See Me Getting Smaller, I’m Leaving.”) Their banter was loose and free flowing, and by the end of the evening, they may or may. not have agreed to bring back their Janis Ian show! For their encore, love-it-or-hate-it “MacArthur Park,” Marcus took the opening vocals, then Tracy pounded the hell out of the piano on the raucous instrumental section, only to suddenly bring everything to a hush, singing a sweet, almost-whispered “MacArthur Park is melting in the dark….” I’m fairly positive nobody in the house hated this rendition. (12/16)
Presented at Urban Stages, 259 W. 30th St., NYC, Dec. 6-17, 2023.
One of the writers who penned the “Bistro Bits” column after the passing of Bob Harrington was John Hoglund, who died on November 14th of this year. He was 79.
Hoglund began working for Sherry Eaker at Back Stage in 1995 and was soon on the cabaret beat there. A friend of his, writer and producer Chip Deffaa, noted on Facebook, however, that Hoglund was “one of the great friends and champions of cabaret” for considerably longer—about four decades in total.
“He’d be out constantly, seeing as much entertainment as anyone possibly could in New York,” Deffaa added. “He was a sweet man, and actually kind of shy.”
Rest in peace, Mr. Hoglund. And thank you for your service to the community we all love.
We were saddened to hear of the loss of another beloved cabaret figure, Vickie Phillips. She left us on December 9th in Springfield, Massachusetts. A presence in New York clubs for decades, she won two Bistro Awards: one back when Bob Harrington simply announced the winners in the pages of Back Stage, the other in 2014 for a show performed at Don’t Tell Mama.
BistroAwards.com reached out to her longtime pianist, Gerry Dieffenbach, for his memories of the singer.
“She found and conveyed such joy in her singing; even in fatalistic songs like Aznavour’s ‘Sailor Boys,’ Weill and Brecht’s ‘Pirate Jenny,’ or Brel’s ‘Amsterdam.’ Vickie’s character within those songs was a survivor who would come out on top of it all. One of her favorites, which she never sang (with me at least), was Margaret Whiting’s hit ‘A Tree in the Meadow’, which is super sentimental. I had the pleasure of introducing Vickie and Margaret, and when Vickie sang for her, Margaret’s overall take was how she really communicated love in her singing. Bob Ost and I wrote ‘A Song Is Like A Friend’ for her, and it couldn’t be any truer. And if a song is like a friend, Vickie was a symphony. I’ll love her ’til I die.”
Dieffenbach is arranging a musical celebration of Vickie Phillips’s life, set for April 24—which would have been her 90th birthday.
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.