By ROB LESTER**** It was a long — but productive — summer of songs, and the top two winners of Don’t Tell Mama’s third annual Mama’s Next BIG! Act singing contest were announced at this week’s finale, on the final Tuesday.
And they are…..
Heather Villaescuesa (above) taking first place, in what host/creator/vote-counter Lennie Watts described as a very close race. Taking the second spot is Lauren Stanford, at right, who had won the grand prize of the MetroStar Talent Challenge at the Metropolitan Room a few years ago (a contest also initiated by and hosted originally by Mr. Watts in that venue’s earliest years when he was its booking manager). The ranking of the other members of group of the Top 5 finalists — Gracie Lee Brown, Justin Nastro, and Toddy Phillips— was not revealed. The most recent elimination round had sliced half of the Top 10.
Singing both songs of their own choice and some assigned by the judges as repeat performances to demonstrate improvement in specific goals discussed in the judges’ feedback, the contestants were given points by both the audience and the judging panel. The summer’s permanent judges were singer/ director/open mic producer Tanya Moberly and longtime Cabaret Scenes Magazine/website editor Frank Dain, a vocalist himself, as well as rotating guest judges from the cabaret world. Points from the final three nights’ secret ballots were combined to determine the winners.
In the final round (Tuesday, August 28), Heather’s numbers were two famous show tunes: 1930’s “I Got Rhythm” from Girl Crazy and A Chorus Line‘s “What I Did for Love.” Lauren’s selections were from more recent musicals, both from off-Broadway: “Summer in Ohio” (The Last Five Years) and “I’ll Be Here” from Ordinary Days, both stories centered on marriages.
The evening opened with two pieces saluting The Big Apple: Lennie Watts and Those Girls performing “New York City Rhythm,” followed by last year’s winner, Joshua Lance Dixon, with a medley. While the votes were being tallied, the first year’s winner, Amorika Amoroso, and other previous top contestants entertained the crowd awaiting the big announcement. The winner will receive a prize package consisting of $1500 towards expenses for her Next BIG! Act to be presented at the club, its poster/postcard design and graphics created by Dain (also a professional graphic designer), a full-length feature article in Cabaret Scenes’ print edition, a fully-paid-for week at a cabaret retreat, and —the joke prize that was the running gag all summer—a George Foreman electric grille.
Since the classic Broadway musical Brigadoon is going to be done in November at City Center and the new year will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of its lyricist-bookwriter, Alan Jay Lerner, I suggest that Mama’s Next BIG! Act winner Heather Villaescuesa name her show after a song from the score, “The Heather on the Hill” and call it The Heather on the Grille. Just a thought! Seriously, congratulations to all five contestants; as an observer most Tuesday nights, it was quite interesting to watch them all grow and take constructive criticism from the articulate cabaret veterans serving as judges. It was quite clear to me that many in the audience who weren’t dyed-in-the-wool cabaret-goers learned a great deal about what makes the marvelous art of cabaret and song interpretation so special. And now even more audience members can look forward to such demonstrations when Heather Villaescuesa brings her show to Don’t Tell Mama, with Lauren Stanford appearing as her opening act.