Bruce Vilanch Set Tone For The Highly Entertaining New York Nightlife Awards

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New York Times
January 27, 2010
Music Review
Awards Already Known, Winners Present a Show

Christine Ebersole, described as “the Meryl Streep of cabaret,” was named outstanding cabaret vocalist in a major engagement at the New York Nightlife Awards on Monday evening at Town Hall. Accompanied on piano by John Oddo, the winsome, curly-headed Broadway star, who opens a new show at the Café Carlyle next week, sang a bright, sky’s-the-limit “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” from “Funny Girl.”

Kurt Elling, voted outstanding jazz vocalist in a major engagement sang a moody bebop-flavored “All the Way,” bending notes like a cerebral horn player, without vibrato, accompanied on piano by Laurence Hobgood.

Louis C. K., chosen outstanding comedian in a major engagement, was missing. Slovin and Allen, outstanding comic duo or group, drew guffaws with their subversively funny fictional readings from Barack Obama’s “Audacity of Hope,” and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “It Takes a Village” (whose preface was twisted into a description of how to become one of the Village People).

Created by the producer Scott Siegel, who has a long association with Town Hall, these awards honoring the previous year’s achievements in cabaret, jazz and comedy have been held there since 1983. Chosen by more than two dozen critics, broadcasters and nightclub representatives (critics for The New York Times do not participate), they differ from the typical show business awards in that there are no acceptance speeches. The winners are invited to perform; most are happy to oblige.

One way to think of the ceremony is as the nightclub equivalent of the New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards. As in that film competition, the winners are announced in advance. This year almost everyone chosen in the cabaret category showed up. Appearances by the winners for jazz and comedy categories were more hit or miss. Previous winners and other guests helped make up for the no-shows.

With a top ticket price of $75, Monday’s three-hour variety show was an entertainment bargain in a city where prices have spiraled into the ozone. But because it has no television outlet (one would think NY1 might be interested) and no major corporate sponsor, the event still flies largely under the radar. If it included rock and hip-hop categories, its magnitude would be exponentially increased, but the logistics would be daunting.

Monday’s boisterously enthusiastic audience might be described as a traditional Broadway audience, less well-heeled than the subscribers to the 92nd Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists series but similar in their old-school show business tastes.

The evening’s most thrilling moment was the musical repartee of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey (joined by Aaron Weinstein on violin) as they wove “Get Happy!” “I Want to Be Happy” and “Sometimes I’m Happy” into a witty argument casually infused with philosophical implication: will it be a yes or a no to love and life?

But the predominant tone, established immediately by its M. C., the comedian and show business wag Bruce Vilanch, was brashly campy. Introducing himself as Chastity Bono, Mr. Vilanch told lewd Moms Mabley jokes that had the audience roaring. Proudly plump and shaggy haired, he joked that, depending on the location, he is mistaken for Michael Moore, Jerry Garcia and Shelley Winters.

Especially in the second half of the program, the celebration increasingly felt like an oldtime vaudeville show, as the New York Tap Ensemble blended tapping, handclaps, body slapping and singing (“On the Sunny Side of the Street”). Breathing fire, Tovah Feldshuh, in a zany head dress and red boa imagined Golda Meir as a vaudeville star, as she sang an extended version of “They All Laughed,” punctuated by raunchy Sophie Tucker-style jokes. We were back in the 1920s surrounded by sawdust and glitter, in the spell of a potty-mouthed red-hot mama.

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