Cabaret World, Including Michael Feinstein and Karen Akers, Paid Tribute to Donald Smith in Song, Laughter and Tears
By Andrew Gans
The creme de la creme of the cabaret world turned out in full force May 22 at The Town Hall to pay tribute to the late Donald Smith, the cabaret impresario who was the founder and executive director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation and creator of the annual Cabaret Convention.
According to good friends and writers Ruth Leon and Rex Reed, who spoke openly and, at times, hilariously about Smith, it was a love of singers, primarily Mabel Mercer; songwriters, exclusively from the Great American Songbook; and the mystique of Manhattan that drew the Massachusetts-born Smith to New York decades ago.
Smith, who also helped save Town Hall, reinvigorated the New York cabaret scene and launched or solidified the careers of a slew of artists, including Andrea Marcovicci, Steve Ross and Michael Feinstein, who were all on hand to offer tributes, in song, to their late friend.
Feinstein kicked off the generous, nearly three-hour tribute with "Of Thee We Sing [Donald]," which led into a touching, slowed-down version of the Alan and Marilyn Bergman standard "Where Do You Start?"
Singer KT Sullivan, another Smith protegee, kept the evening moving with brief introductions and occasional commentary about Smith, which included the reading of letters Smith received over the years from the likes of Joan Crawford, Stephen Sondheim and Elaine Stritch. Sullivan related that upon receiving a Valentine's Day card from Smith, Stritch thanked him for the gesture, adding, "As you can imagine, I don't get many of these."
But it was the diverse array of songs that spoke loudest, demonstrating that Smith's years of cultivating talent had not been in vain.
Among the many highlights were Ann Hampton Callaway, who devised a moving and humorous song on the spot, incorporating words describing or relating to Smith that were shouted out from the audience; pianist Barbara Carroll (accompanied by famed bass player Jay Leonhart), who brilliantly fused Bach with standards like "My Funny Valentine"; Marilyn Maye, who in her 80s, proved she remains as thrilling a vocalist as anyone half or one-quarter her age with a belty, heartfelt delivery of "Here's to Life"; Tony-nominated actress Karen Akers, who sang beautifully in both French and English; T. Oliver Reid, one of Smith's newest discoveries, who lent his rich and expansive vocal tones to Cole Porter's "Night and Day"; Ross, who celebrated New York and Smith, respectively, with "Take Me Back to Manhattan"/"I Happen to Like New York" and "It Never Was You"; Jeff Harnar, who sang and spoke with equal emotional force; Broadway and cabaret performer Christine Andreas, whose lush tones enveloped the WWII ballad "I'll Be Seeing You"; Craig Rubano, who soared while singing not only in Italian, but without amplification; and Billy Stritch, who offered a velvety rendition of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square."
It was cabaret favorite Marcovicci, however, who was most visibly heartbroken by the loss of the man who, years ago, first invited her to sing at the Algonquin's Oak Room, where she remained its biggest draw for 25 years. The gifted actress struggled to keep her composure while delivering two of Smith's favorites, "On Such a Night As This" and "These Foolish Things." Marcovicci also regaled the audience with a humorous story about Smith's devoutly religious mother Mary and spoke of the love her own daughter, Alice, had for Smith, a "Santa Claus" who often brought her shopping bags full of gifts. It was clear Marcovicci lost more than a publicist and career advisor — Smith was her friend and, perhaps, greatest fan.
Host Sullivan concluded the evening, appropriately, with "Thanks for the Memory," before most of the evening's participants returned to join voices on Noel Coward's "I'll See You Again."
Following the memorial concert, all of the performers lingered on the sidewalk outside Town Hall long after the audience had departed, eagerly conversing with one another and undoubtedly sharing memories of the late producer. Smith had truly completed his mission: He created a cabaret community of performing artists. To borrow a phrase from songwriter John Bucchino, in a "city of strangers [Smith created] a family of [talented] friends."
In lieu of flowers, a donation may be made to Smith's favorite charity, The Mabel Mercer Foundation. Checks (tax-deductible) should be made out to The Mabel Mercer Foundation and remit to the Mabel Mercer Foundation office at 160 East 48th Street #1P, New York, NY, 10017.
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