STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Come to the Cabaret

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Come to the Cabaret May may be the lusty month, as Guenevere taught us, but March is Cabaret Month. Every year since 1983, New York's mayor has proclaimed it so. That even includes this yearis mayor, Rudia -- er, Rudy Giuliani.
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May may be the lusty month, as Guenevere taught us, but March is Cabaret Month. Every year since 1983, New York's mayor has proclaimed it so. That even includes this yearis mayor, Rudia -- er, Rudy Giuliani.

It's the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs that spurred the honor. And, for 11 Marches now, the group has handed out its MAC Awards for Excellence, bestowing trophies to winners in 33 categories.

This year is going to see a close race in Major Female Comedy, where Joy Behar, Julie Halston, and Rita Rudner will duke it out. Ditto Ann Hampton Callaway for her gigs at Maxim's and the Bottom Line, Karen Mason at Rainbow and Stars, and Julie Wilson at the Algonquin in the category of Best Major Female Vocalist.

This is not to be confused with Best Female Vocalists, which boasts the ladies who play in the smaller venues, such as Judy's, Eighty-Eight's, the Triad, the Duplex, Rose's Turn, et al.

We'll find out the winners on March 31. Most astonshing is where the event takes place. The ceremony started only 11 years ago in one of its own clubs, then not-so-slowly and surely worked its way up to Symphony Space and the Copacabana. This year, it will play no less than Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Wait a minute, you say. Playbil On-Line is supposed to be about theater, not cabaret. Well, for the last few years, we've seen a lot of theater in cabaret. Lest you doubt the crossover has occurred, be apprised that The Best Plays Series includes in its list of "Long Runs Off-Broadway" a show that has never played anything but a cabaret for its entire New York engagement.

That's Forbidden Broadway 1982-87, which ran 2,332 performances, good enough for sixth on the all-time list, just behind -- need we note -- The Fantasticks, Perfect Crime, Nunsense, The Threepenny Opera, and Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding. (The last named, when you think of it, even employs the tables, chairs, and drinks that are cabaret's mainstay. So you may want to consider it an honorary cabaret show.)

A few weeks ago I went on about Barry Kleinbort's Big City Rhythm, but just in case you think that I'm its only fan, well, it's been nominated for a MAC as Revue of the Year. Kleinbort will be running against himself, for he and partner Ken Bloom came in to doctor the also nominated A Brief History of White Music, still at the Village Gate (which is, by the way, no longer in the Village. First the Automat, then the Pan-Am Building, and now this!)

Nevertheless, the current odds-on favorite as Revue of the Year has to be the other nominee: Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back, which, judging from reviews and public reception, may eventually make that Best Plays "Long Runs Off-Broadway" list.

I'm already more interested in next year's Revue of the Year nominees. May I suggest Fairy Tales, Eric Lane Barnes' song cycle about the gay life (and we don't mean that Dietz and Schwartz musical). A full 63 years after Cole Porter wrote "You're the Top," Barnes has become the one smart enough to have finally come up with "You're the Bottom": ("You're liquid Cremora, You're Pia Zadora. . .")

Then there's a Nobody-Does-It-Like-Me-like number in which a woman moans that "Every guy I try to date turns out to be gay." Sample lyric: "It all began the night of my high school senior prom / My date would only slow dance with my best friend's brother Tom / And later that same evening, my dad came out to my mom."

Funniest of all is "The Letter Song," which has one of those obfuscatory titles like "Dance Ten, Looks Three" that doesn't want us to know the joke until we hear the song. But I'm going to give this one away, knowing that when you read this, you'll just have to hear the rest of it.

"The Letter Song" is a Motown number as done by the Supremes (or the Dreams, if you will). Seems that the Diana Ross character (or Deena Jones, if you will) has just received a letter in which her boyfriend says, "I don't wanna see you no more, 'cuz I ain't in love with you" -- to which Diana/Deena snarls the real title of this song: "You've got a lot of bad, bad grammar, baby."

Then, through this nearly-five-minute tirade, Diana/Deena, unlike Ruth Sherwood, is not afraid to show him that he's made many a grammatical error. Meanwhile, the two back-up singers are singing in that high-pitched in an ain't-no-mountain-high-enough wail, "'I' before 'E!' Except after 'C'!' (Wouldn't you love it, by the way, if they'd sung, "'I' before 'E,' except in Sondheim"?)

I've stressed the fun numbers, but Barnes has also written about the serious side of gay life. A teenager trying to write the letter to his folks that will tell them of his sexual preference. A man's spotting a hummingbird outside the window and pointing it out to his very ill lover, in hopes it might distract him from the pain. A memorial service where a surviving boyfriend is not welcomed by his late lover's family. All very moving.

Can't make it to the Duplex, where the show plays Saturdays at 7:30 PM through April 5? Good news: All of the above can be found on the Fairy Tales CD from Firefly Records. Well worth having. Well worth attending.

Another Best Revue contender should be Something New, 16 songs by Michael Lazar and Richard Oberacker. These guys know how to write those bolt-of-lightning ballads that have been the mainstay of those internationally famous "poperas" lo these last two decades.

Lazar and Oberacker have written a Dracula musical that's almost made it to a few stages, and the selections they've chosen to include in Something New suggest would be stageworthy. Scott Coulter was marvelous as Renfield, singing as he set out the sugar that he hoped would catch him a fly. He does right on the button of the song, when he slurps it into his mouth.

The show featured Matt Bogart, who, for those of us who haven't visited Miss Saigon since the Bush administration, is the current Chris. He was gracious to perform after he'd played his Sunday matinee. Or maybe he just wanted to sing these songs very much.

Or wanted to see some of his ol' classmates from Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Rachel Ulanet can hit notes as high as an elephant's forehead. Sally Ann Tumas should head to Atlantic City in September so she can take home a Miss America trophy. You'll want to have and to hold Danette Holden, too, who can hold her notes and the stage quite well.

Something New plays every Sunday in March at Don't Tell Mama -- which is, by the way, even named after a theater song. (I mention that in case you still need more proof that there's a solid link between theater and cabaret.)

Finally, let me say that even when you're in the midst of mediocre cabaret, you can still find a nugget of greatness. At Sex Changes Everything, David Goldberg's fitfully funny and sometimes melodious battle-of-the-sexes revue, I discovered someone who could make it big. We all had to learn how to spell words like Streisand, Stockard, and LuPone, and I won't be surprised if we all eventually feel that we'd better memorize Renae Morway. That's R-E-N-A-E M-O-R-W-A-Y.

If that doesn't look like a name that should be over the title, well, tell me that after you see this divine Ms. M. She's pretty, pert, pencil-thin, expressive, the possessor of a beautiful voice and pinpoint comic timing. In an era where every show is a New Faces of '97, here's my favorite new face and voice. You'll discover that when she's given a big part in a new show -- be it in cabaret or theater.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com.

Check out a major website, Cabaret Hotline, about cabaret only in New York, but throughout the U.S. -- and Australia -- at http://www.cris.com/%7EShamstra/.