PTown's Cabaret Fest — Summer Camp for Cabaret Fans

by John Amodeo

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday June 16, 2021

PTown's Cabaret Fest — Summer Camp for Cabaret Fans
  (Source:Getty Images)

As we emerge from the long isolating hibernation of the pandemic, we are practically giddy at the thought of being able to do what we haven't been able to over the past 15 months. "'Happy' doesn't begin to describe it," declares impresario Sidney Myer from his Manhattan theater district nightclub Don't Tell Mama, while audible carousing is heard in the background. One of the things many of us have been pining for most is the thrill of experiencing live entertainment in person. Cape Cod's Patricia Fitzpatrick has just the answer: "Broadway at the Beach: the 21st Provincetown CabaretFest," an abbondanza of entertainment featuring nearly three dozen singers performing June 23-27.

Asked if she is excited to bring back live in-person entertainment, Fitzpatrick demurs, "'Excited' isn't really the right word. Maybe 'relieved'... relieved that we can continue. Like that movie 'Waiting to Exhale,' a lot of us were wondering for 15 months when we could do this again."

Fitzpatrick is referring to the 21st season of CabaretFest, an annual event that began in 2000, originally produced by Boston-based cabaret performer and producer John O'Neil, picked up some years later by Cape Cod's band leader and producer Bart Weisman, and continued over most over the past decade by Fitzpatrick. Past themes of CabaretFest have been comedy or songs from the 1940s, '50s, or '60s. This year, as a tribute to the "Great White Way" currently shuttered by the pandemic, the theme is "Broadway."

Sidney Myer  

With five consecutive days of non-stop performances, CabaretFest will be overflowing with entertainment. The shows begin on Wednesday, June 23, with emerging star Chris Brooke. Thursday, June 24, will include Shelley Taylor Boyd and New York pianist Michael McAssey. Friday, June 25, offers Jo Brisbane followed by the variety show to end all variety shows, brimming with a cavalcade of performers. The main events will be held on Saturday, June 26, with Broadway actor ("Sound of Music," "Sail Away," and Oliver") Richard White.

The fun continues with funny boy Roderick Ferguson and Broadway star ("Mamma Mia," "Annie," "Bandstand" and upcoming "My Fair Lady") Mary Callanan, a local favorite. This year's headliner will be Sidney Myer. As last year's Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Myer will present a Lifetime Achievement Award to this year's recipient, the legendary New York nightclub singer/pianist Steve Ross. As a cool-down on Sunday June 27, John O'Neil will host another variety show featuring Special Guest Pamela Enders along with performances by all the students of the various master classes offered throughout CabaretFest, backed up by the Michael McAssey Trio. Those master classes will be led by many of this year's CabaretFest stars. The pianists on hand will include McAssey, Mike Renzi, Tracy Stark, Bobby Wetherbee, and Joe Della Penna.

For the performers and many audience members, CabaretFest is like summer camp for cabaret fans. It's a total immersion. Barriers are broken and bonds are made that get renewed each year among newfound kindred spirits. Fitzpatrick credits her first CabaretFest as her return to live performing after "being out of the business for 30 years," while raising a family. "I hadn't heard of the art form of cabaret until I met John O'Neil. I then realized that cabaret would be a great way for me to get back in the business. I now see it as a wonderful art form where older professionals can share their wisdom, and the younger performers can get the attention of audiences and booking agents. It helps them get a leg up, because in cabaret, you can produce yourself, even on a limited budget."

Myer agrees when talking about how his nightclub has helped many an emerging or returning star: "It's almost an unspoken tradition that for performers coming to NYC from domestic and foreign shores, cabaret is the first door open to them. Performers can self-produce so easily in cabaret."
The fun continues with funny boy Roderick Ferguson and Broadway star ("Mamma Mia," "Annie," "Bandstand" and upcoming "My Fair Lady") Mary Callanan, a local favorite. This year's headliner will be Sidney Myer. As last year's Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Myer will present a Lifetime Achievement Award to this year's recipient, the legendary New York nightclub singer/pianist Steve Ross. As a cool-down on Sunday June 27, John O'Neil will host another variety show featuring Special Guest Pamela Enders along with performances by all the students of the various master classes offered throughout CabaretFest, backed up by the Michael McAssey Trio. Those master classes will be led by many of this year's CabaretFest stars. The pianists on hand will include McAssey, Mike Renzi, Tracy Stark, Bobby Wetherbee, and Joe Della Penna.

Steve Myer and Patricia Fitzpatrick  

Myer recounts the many performers who have graced his club: "No one would believe the people who have come through those doors. People who made their first appearances in the NYC cabaret scene include Billy Porter, Alice Ripley, Jonathan Larsen ("Rent"), and Mira Sorvino. They started at Don't Tell Mama and have gone on to win Tonys, Emmys, Oscars, and even a Pulitzer Prize. Nicolas King performed here when he was 11. Miss Coco, Jackie Hoffman, Varla Jean Merman, Seth Rudetsky," and the list goes on." Bringing it full circle to CabaretFest, Myer continues, "We had Patricia [Fitzpatrick] performing in one room [at Don't tell Mama] while Marilyn Maye was having dinner in our restaurant, and I invited Marilyn to see Patricia's show, and she came, and now they are fast friends." Maye was a recipient of a CabaretFest Lifetime Achievement Award several years ago.

Shelley Taylor Boyd is one such example of how cabaret became her door to returning to live performing after a long hiatus to raise her family in southern Connecticut. In the '80s and '90s, Boyd's brother/sister cabaret act "Jim and Shelley" was the toast of the gay nightclub circuit in New Haven, Hartford, and Boston. They also performed whole summers in Provincetown in the '80s alongside the likes of Carol O'Shaughnessy, Sharon McKnight, and Karen Mason. Three years ago at CabaretFest, Boyd sang one song, "For Good," ("Wicked") during the Sunday brunch event, and you could hear a pin drop. Since then she has had a regular gig at Solun Tapas Restaurant in her home town of New Haven, has performed in the Napoleon Room at Boston's Club Café, and now, three years later, has her own show at CabaretFest. "I think the option to network and to sit with, sing with, and learn from all the other performers is unique," Boyd remarks, "and every participant leaves a stronger and more informed performer."

Boyd has an enormous repertoire of pop, swing standards, Broadway, and American Songbook, but in keeping with this year's theme, she will feature her favorite songs from hit Broadway musicals in her Thursday night show. She won't divulge her song list ("It will all be a surprise") but she promises you will hear her show title "Razzle, Dazzle 'Em!" at least once during the show. "I have a Garland medley," Boyd also reveals. "The original one goes back to the '80s, because my brother and I did this together. Tom [LaMark] and I worked together to transcribe what my brother and I just had in our heads. I will do the longer version at my show, and then a shorter version at one of the other CabaretFest events. I'm resurrecting unique novelty arrangements from my early days of the '80s and '90s and bringing them to the present with the help of [arranger/pianist] Tom LaMark."

Steve Ross  

This year's Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Steve Ross, attended his first CabaretFest two years ago as the headliner, performing the works of one of his favorite songwriters Cole Porter. Known as "the Crown Prince of Cabaret," Ross has been performing in New York for more than five decades, starting out playing piano in gay nightclubs and piano bars "because the Italian food was good!", then landing a gig at the prestigious Backstage in 1978, next door to the Martin Beck Theater, where actors would stop in after their shows and sing a few songs at the piano. In 1981, another cabaret impresario, Donald Smith, founder of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, helped Ross get his next big break, which was a regular gig at the storied Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, where he held court for 15 years. This has since led to a continuous series of concerts in NYC, which have included Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, as well as venues both vast and intimate, nationally and internationally. Stephen Holden, of the New York Times proclaimed "...Steve Ross is such a master at putting a debonair spin on Cole Porter and Noël Coward's musical high-jinks that his persona is that of a sophisticated party entertainer who holds off the blues with a froth of wit. But there is an introspective side to Mr. Ross that has increasingly peeked out in his recent cabaret performance...the humor is balanced by songs that have the feel of wistful sighs."

Ross, born in the Manhattan suburb of New Rochelle, learned to play piano by ear, and aspired to play piano in saloons and nightclubs, but never imagined he'd turn out to be a singer. "Singing only came out of necessity when I came to New York," admits Ross. "And they said, 'So you sing,' and I said, 'Well, no.' But they asked, 'Would you do it?' And I said, 'Sure.'" Without the life experience to sing the ballads and love songs convincingly, Ross stuck to comedy. "I started with the wordy funny songs, music hall songs," he explains, "and the love songs came later. That didn't happen until I was 30. I went to many voice teachers to learn how to sing well enough to use my voice to sing my songs."

Though he came of age during the rebellious '60s, a time of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Ross was an anomaly, sticking with the standards from the Great American Songbook of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, with a special affinity towards three very specific songwriters: "Cole Porter, for his wit and passion and his own life experience; Irving Berlin; and of course, Noël Coward. They inspire me the most," Ross explains. But he doesn't shy away from some of the more contemporary writers whose work he admires, like Craig Carnelia, John Bucchino, and Ed Dickson. He even has a show he's been performing the past few years and will perform again in London later this year called "Time in a Bottle: Steve Ross sings the '60s and '70s," featuring the music of Jim Croce and Joni Mitchell, among others. He quips, "That's as modern as I get." But above them all is Stephen Sondheim, which he claims is "like breathing another air. We are so lucky to live during his lifetime. No one has the incisive playable genius that he does."

Shelley Taylor Boyd  

Ross has received numerous awards throughout his distinguished career, including being inducted into the Cabaret Hall of Fame in 2016. Regarding his CabaretFest Lifetime Achievement Award, Ross gushes, "I was very pleased to receive this award."

Myer, who will present the Award to Ross identifies with the sentiment, recalling his reaction when he received last year's Lifetime Achievement Award. "Touched. I was very moved," gushes Myer, continuing to gush about last year's festival, "The whole time I spent in Provincetown during CabaretFest was just magical. I was so impressed with what Patricia had created." Fitzpatrick, who was undaunted managed to still produce CabaretFest last year despite the pandemic, though it needed to be postponed from June until October, with limited outdoor seating capacity, and complete compliance with social distancing, masks, and hygiene protocols. "Interestingly enough, the people who did show up formed a deeper bond than if we did the whole shebang. People like Sidney Myer and Nic King were mingling with people who might not have mingled with them. We were all packed like survivors of the Titanic on location for the weekend, forming a closer nucleus," reflects Fitzpatrick. "That allowed me to springboard into this year.

Boyd thinks CabaretFest benefits everyone — performer and audience alike. "You get a lot of bang for your buck," she asserts. "If you have a budget and can only go to one show, you can choose the variety show, where you can see 35 performers in just a few hours, and you get introduced to so much more new talent. Performers get to be up close and personal with their audience, and the audience loves that. It's so eclectic, so diverse. So many performance styles. It's a smorgasbord of talent, and you can eat until you're full."

Shelley Taylor Boyd will perform "Razzle Dazzle 'Em: on Thursday, June 24, 7:30 PM at Sardi's, Gabriel's Guest House, 102 Commercial Street, Provincetown. Tickets: $30, or VIP Pass. The Variety Show "Give My Regards to Broadway" will be performed Friday, June 25, 7:30 PM at the Red Room at Velvet, 258 Commercial Street, Provincetown. Tickets $35, or VIP Pass.

Sidney Myerwill perform at the gala "Some Enchanted Evening" where he will present a Lifetime Achievement Award to Steve Ross, Saturday, June 26, 8 PM at the Red Room at Velvet. Tickets: VIP $50, General Seating $35. The master class student variety show "There's No Business Like Show Business" with Special Guest Artist Pamela Enders will be performed Sunday, June 27 at 11:30 AM, at the Brasswood In, 174 Commercial Street, Provincetown. For a full list of Festival performers, venues, and to purchase tickets, visit https://www.provincetowncabaretfest.com/

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.