Cabaret Compromised and the 10th Annual MetroStar Talent Challenge

Cabaret makes a significant contribution to our culture. In theory it does. It does if a significant percentage of the population even knows what cabaret is. My guess is people don’t. When Simon Cowell ruled American Idol, he’d imply to millions of viewers weekly that cabaret was an old-fashioned entertainment form only worth dismissing.

There was a time, though, when cabaret was venerated so much that Manhattan venues had late shows on weeknights. That was Manhattan, of course, which was one of the large cosmopolitan areas that could sustain such locations. Smaller cities may not have been able to support cabaret rooms, but still...

Today cabaret rooms in Manhattan and elsewhere—where one of maybe two or three performers could become up-close-and-personal in intimate spaces—are shrinking. They’re indisputably becoming marginalized. (Luckily, The Beach Café, has just opened a new Upper East Side Manhattan room where prodigious vet Mark Nadler presides.)

Conditions have become so ominous that, with the retirement of longtime cabaret critic Stephen Holden, The New York Times has apparently decided henceforth to ignore cabaret. Such a decision by one of the nation’s journals of record is tantamount to pounding several more nails into cabaret’s coffin.

Threatened as cabaret is, though, there are still rooms bucking the circumstances, and—in what can look like putting on a gallant display of hope against hope—there’s one room that’s just completed a 10th annual campaign against the disappearance of cabaret. It’s the Metropolitan Room, where the MetroStar Talent Challenge concluded with a run-off of five finalists who’d weathered six weeks of demanding competition.

The winner is Emily Ellet, the first-runner-up is Anthony Alfaro and the second runner-up is Joan Crow. The others were 16-year-old Jackie Mate, who walked away with the Audience Favorite Award, and Evan Dolan, who nabbed the Best New Artist Award.

The good news for Ellet is that she nails a longer engagement at the venue. (The Metropolitan Room, which closes September30 at its current West 22nd Street address, will reopen in 2018 at a still-undisclosed spot.) Runners-up Alfaro and Crow will alternate opening for Ellet.

The news that might not be so good for cabaret as things are now is that because of shadowed cabaret conditions, the prospects for Ellet—for any of the group—aren’t sunny. Of the previous nine MetroStar winners—in chronological order, Anne Steele, Liz Lark Brown, T. Oliver Reid, Marissa Mulder, Billie Roe, Lauren Stanford, Kristoffer Lowe, Minda Larsen and David Baida—only Reid Oliver and Baida seem to surface regularly beyond the tinier Manhattan rooms, and Reid and Baida due to Broadway credits.

The very, very good news for prospective audiences is that while cabaret outlets are vanishing at worrisome rates, talent is not. The talent on display at the MetroStar conclusion could knock a ringsider off his or her pins.

To begin with, the voices rose to the stratosphere. Actually, the five voices could occasionally be too strong. That’s to say that too often singers approach cabaret as a platform for showing their voices off—and lyrics be damned. To be sure, there are intimate-room habitués who like it like that, but performers who stress emotional connections with material tend to last longer than the belters.

(After all, belting isn’t known as belting for nothing. Often that brand of vocalizing, when overused—especially in small confines—can have almost the same effect as a punch to the solar plexus.)

In my opinion, this year’s finalists included two belters—first runner-up Alfaro and Mate—and three who allowed their individual personalities to shine through their song choices—Ellet, Crow and Dolan. The latter three are the ones who struck me as ready for the bigger time. It may be that Ellet’s medley of “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” and “It’s Raining Men”—and what it implied about her personality—is what clinched the contest for him.

All the same, I should report that, as they assessed the three-song appearances, the four permanent judges—cabaret writer Roy Sander, Metropolitan Room booker Joseph Macchia and performers Billie Roe and Doris Dear—claimed to find emotional depth in all the participants’ mini-sets. (I had to wonder if they could discern the difference between manufactured and genuine emotion.)

The MetroStar Talent Challenge did bring to mind the old saying “Talent will out.” At this year’s finals, that declaration proved preeminent. Unfortunately, in a larger 2017 entertainment context, we cannot be so certain.

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