“From the 1940s until her death in 1984 Mabel Mercer was regarded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Leontyne Price as the definitive cafe singer, an artist who struck a deep personal chord in nearly everybody who came to hear her,” writes James Gavin in his chronicle of cabaret, Intimate Nights. The nonprofit Mabel Mercer Foundation, founded in 1985, honors her contributions with an annual high-profile showcase for her artistic heirs; this wingding is traditionally held in New York or San Francisco, but this year it comes here, offering local admirers of this fragile yet tenacious art form an unparalleled opportunity to sample its finest practitioners. The schedule features seven different programs over four days at four different venues: a $75 black-tie gala opening at the Palmer House’s fabled Empire Room, more modestly priced concerts at the Park West and the Casino, and free presentations at the Chicago Cultural Center. The lineup of talent booked by the foundation’s executive director, Mercer’s former publicist Donald Smith, is astonishing in quality, quantity, and stylistic range. Venerable vets like Rita Gardner, Lilianne Montevecchi, and the great Julie Wilson will perform on bills with younger singers–among them Andrea Marcovicci, Amanda McBroom, Baby Jane Dexter, Karen Akers, Tovah Feldshuh, Christine Andreas, Steve Ross, Phillip Officer, and Chicago favorites Karen Mason, Nan Mason, Spider Saloff, Beckie Menzie, Audrey Morris, Judy Roberts, Jeff Harnar, and Justin Hayford. In addition, Davenport’s Piano Bar & Cabaret will present a special program in conjunction with the convention. For more information about the convention or to purchase tickets, call 773-929-5959. Albert Williams

Thursday, March 14

Randolph Cafe, Chicago Cultural Center

78 E. Washington, 312-744-6630

12:15PM KT Sullivan and pianist Larry Woodard

Empire Room, Palmer House Hilton

17 E. Monroe, 312-726-7500

PM Karen Akers, *Klea Blackhurst, Jeff Harnar, Lynn Loosier, Andrea Marcovicci, Colleen McHugh, Tom Michael, Georga Osborne, Greta Pope, Steve Ross, Spider Saloff, David Staller, KT Sullivan, *Julie Wilson, Bobbi Wilsyn, and Larry Woodard

Friday, March 15

Park West

322 W. Armitage, 773-929-5959

PM Act I: Tovah Feldshuh, Audrey Morris, Georga Osborne, Tom Michael, Judy Roberts, Claiborne Cary, Beckie Menzie, and Karen Akers

Act II: *Julie Wilson, John Barrowman, Spider Saloff, Steve Ross, Jennifer Chada, Lynn Loosier, Wesla Whitfield, Eric Comstock, and Andrea Marcovicci

Saturday, March 16

Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center

78 E. Washington, 312-744-6630

1-5PM Phillip Officer, Johnny Frigo, Craig Rubano, Colleen McHugh

Randolph Cafe, Chicago Cultural Center

78 E. Washington, 312-744-6630

1-5PM Mary Foster-Conklin, Weird Sisters, Joyce Breach, Moonglow

Park West

322 W. Armitage, 773-929-5959

PM Act I: Christine Andreas, Justin Hayford, Joan Curto, Cory Jamison, Dina Joy Byrd, David Staller, Patty Morabito, and Mark Nadler

Act II: Libby Whittemore, Yanna Avis, Daryl Sherman, Anna Bergman, Joyce Breach, Nan Mason, Malcolm Gets, and Amanda McBroom

The Casino

195 E. Delaware, 312-787-2100

PM *Klea Blackhurst


245 E. Goethe, 312-742-1748

PM Audrey Morris & Joe Kregor perform Salute to the Great American Song

Sunday, March 17

Park West

322 W. Armitage , 773-929-5959

3PM Act I: Phillip Officer, Hinda Hoffman, Kat Taylor, Mary Foster-Conklin, Daryl Nitz, Judy Barnett, Rita Gardner, and Karen Mason

Act II: Baby Jane Dexter, Denise Tomasello, Brian DeLorenzo, Natalie Gamsu, Lilianne Montevecchi, Lumiri Tubo, and Craig Rubano

Davenport’s Piano Bar & Cabaret

1383 N. Milwaukee, 773-278-1830

9PM *Julie Wilson


No one can sing like Ethel Merman, and Klea Blackhurst doesn’t try. Instead, she evokes the legacy of the influential but often-mocked star in Everything the Traffic Will Allow, a warm, witty program of anecdotes and songs. Blackhurst, a spunky comic and vibrant vocalist whose Salt Lake City upbringing has earned her the sobriquet “Ethel Mormon,” can belt with the best; but she’s equally engaging when she turns down the volume and vibrato in favor of softer, subtler renditions of the Mer’s repertoire. “I Got Lost in His Arms” (from Annie Get Your Gun) is sexy and smoldering in Blackhurst’s cool jazzy rendition, while her exquisite ragtime version of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” (from Gypsy) is light and lilting. The set also includes rarely heard tunes added to Hello, Dolly! especially for Merman when she joined the cast in 1970.


Cabaret’s greatest singing actress caps the Chicago Cabaret Convention with a one-night stand at Davenport’s in Wicker Park. It’s her first nightclub gig here since a 1999 run at the Plaza Tavern; the intimate Davenport’s should be a much more accommodating venue for Wilson’s unique talent. Now in her 70s, Wilson started out as a vaudeville showgirl before starring in classic musicals of the 40s and 50s; in the 80s she emerged as a husky-voiced chanteuse whose intense readings of songs by Sondheim, Weill, Porter, and Arlen transformed cabaret concerts into dramatic events. As John Gielgud did in his solo readings of Shakespeare, the slim, still-sexy Wilson holds the stage with her steely presence and astonishing mastery of language; shifting effortlessly between song and speech, she’s by turns wry, eccentric, and devastating as she mines a lyric for minute emotional nuances.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jack Vartoogian.