Cabaret Showdown

Kraine Theater, Manhattan

By Andrew Andrews

Diana Van Decker Byrne dances as Mark McDaniels sings the Cabaret Showdown theme song, with Danny Bernstein’s piano accompaniment.

It’s no secret that every year, handfuls of aspiring performers come to New York City with the hope of breaking into the Big Time. The competition is tremendous, and it’s commonplace to cross paths with a talented singer seeking recognition in a subway station, at an open mic night or even just strategically positioned on a busy street. But there’s one place in the city where crooners are invited to not only share their talents, but prove them—through a bracketed contest held once every month on New York’s off-off-Broadway capital: East 4th Street.

Combining elements of game shows Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune and Name That Tune with your favorite reality-television singing competition and the inclusiveness of a karaoke bar, Cabaret Showdown pits pairs of contestants against each other as “celebrity” judges decide which vocalists will move on to the semi-finals, and then to the final round.

It works like this: at the beginning of the show, eight singers sign up and each draws a slot from the proverbial hat. The first two contestants are called to the stage by (singing) host Mark McDaniels, where guest #1 chooses a random number from one of five categories, which vary from show to show. A song title is revealed by the Vanna-inspired Diana Van Decker Byrne, and the singer can choose to perform it, or hand it off to their opponent. After spending 30 seconds (more-or-less) planning a strategy with the house keyboardist, the would-be cabaret star performs the piece to the best of their ability—a true rendition if they know the song, or something completely off-the-cuff if they have no idea what they’ve been handed!

Having just celebrated the show’s fifth anniversary last month, tonight’s episode was labeled Happy Holly Days 6 and featured Danny Bernstein (from 90210: The Musical) on the keys. True to the theme, songs were grouped into the categories Adult Contemporary Christmas, Winter Solstice, Holidays on Film & TV, The “Wonder” of “Love” (holiday songs by the named songwriters) and Christ-MISC. Don Garverick, the show’s creator/director and resident judge, was joined by guest judges Megan Loughran (actress and All-Star Cabaret Showdown Champion) and Michael Mastroddi (CEO of Propeller Tail Media), providing positive feedback and a hint of constructive criticism after each performance.

In the first round, contestants Brian and Gina were each stuck improvising songs they didn’t know—This Christmas and What Are You Doing New Years Eve? respectively—with comedic effect, and Brian advancing to the next round. Then, Marisa del Campo beat out Jennifer’s Merry Christmas Darling with a rendition of Winter that covered Tori Amos’ style with just the right hint of snarkiness, and Ashley Domenech defeated Marcos Gabriel Sanchez’s We Need a Little Christmas with her sincere cover of Stevie Wonder’s What Christmas Means to Me. Last up for this round, Thomas covered Joni Mitchell’s River with no clue about the song but enough confidence and humor to outscore Bailey’s rendition of Believe (by Josh Groban).

Giving the contestants a break, guest judge Megan Loughran took the stage to perform The Mulberry Avenue Christmas Light Competition, a very funny saga about a mother who risks losing her family and friends over a house-decorating contest in her neighborhood. If you’re reading this review from the family room of a suburban McMansion, you might just feel the ditty hits a little too close to home!

In the semi-finals, Marisa and Ashley advanced once again, performing strong renditions of Christmas Time is Here and Grown-up Christmas List. For the final round, Ashley put her heart and soul into Barry Manilow’s Because It’s Christmas, only to be topped by Marisa’s cover of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You, stealing the show with the audience joining the chorus. But taking home the (paper) crown isn’t the only reward for one-upping the competition in this show: the winner each month earns their very own showcase performance the following month, immediately before the next showdown. Second only to a walk-on part in Hamilton, this is the kind of exposure any vocalist would love to add to their portfolio!

Whether you have your sights set on Broadway, or you really get into watching American Idol, The Voice, The X Factor or Rising Star, the Cabaret Showdown is a great way to experience a live music competition with up-and-coming local talent in a nurturing environment. So grab a ticket to the next show and join the audience—or better yet, drop your name in the bucket and take the stage!


Andrew Andrews attended Cabaret Showdown at Kraine Theater in Manhattan on Sunday, December 11, 2016 @ 7:00pm to write this review.