Elizabeth (Betty) Sullivan floated into town this Mother’s Day to be celebrated by two of her eight singing progeny—KT and Stacy Sullivan—and, in turn, to celebrate the newly released CD Together Through Time, The Brownings in Word and Song (Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning). May 7 was the 200th anniversary of Robert Browning’s birth. The afternoon mixed immensely personal songs for which Sullivan wrote music and lyrics with poetry by the Brownings, both recited and sung, accompanied by her compositions.
Sullivan’s own “You Are the Reason” we sing our songs, graciously welcomes the room. The vocalist leans forward, warmly registering familiar faces, reaching out. Melody and voice are gentle, feathery. “Hello Young Lovers” (Richard Rodgers/ Oscar Hammerstein) follows with her husband Jim’s name inserted into the verse. “Not everybody can sing a song like that. They can sing it better, but not with the heart I have.” Too true. The iconic lyrics sincerely sound like shared experience. “Just Turn It Around”, another of the writer’s own, was titled by advice her mama used to give. It’s pretty, waltzy, right to the point, and good advice-a country cover waiting to be found: Walk awhile in my shoes/Think of me leavin’ like you’re fixin’ to do.
KT Sullivan initially intended to recite Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet XXI, Sonnets from the Portuguese. “I’m a singer, not a reciter of poetry,” she thought telephoning her mother with a request for melody. “They asked Sammy Cahn which came first, the music or the lyrics,” Betty quips, “he said, the telephone call.” Her song has the weight and movement of a chiffon scarf in a breeze. KT’s husband, Stephen Downey, then recites “the hottest love poem ever written,” Robert Browning’s “Now,” followed by a musical version performed by T. Oliver Reid. Both men deliver sensitive, heartfelt renditions.
Stephen Lehew takes the stage aptly cradling a flower. His nuanced musical version of Robert Browning’s “Summum Bonum” is coupled with an equally deft, resonant reading of the poem by Charles Turner. Nicole Mitchell’s “How Do I Love Thee?” XLIII, Sonnets from the Portuguese (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) brings the fullness of a deep, rich operatic voice to the festivities. “We throw this around in the cabaret world, but I can truly say, Brava Diva.” (KT Sullivan)
Steve Ross, identified by his well earned title, the Prince of Cabaret, commented he was “brought in to lower the tone a little.” The artist thoughtfully did just this with eminently wry, mother-centric numbers by Noël Coward, Ian Whitcomb and Kander and Ebb. Truly there is no one with his repertoire, insouciance, and pitch perfect timing. Smiles break out like blossoms.
The show ends with two of Elizabeth Sullivan’s songs inspired by her beloved husband both of which are, in their way, as timeless and powerful as the Browning to which we’d been treated. And the lush, moving “As Long As We Sing,” dedicated to Mabel Mercer. This last, becoming a signature, is performed by the three Sullivan women with their arms and voices around one another’s heady harmony. What a family!
You Are the One
Vocals –Elizabeth Sullivan
KT Sullivan, Stacy Sullivan, Nicole Michelle,
T. Oliver Reid, Steve Ross, Stephen Lehew,
With Elizabeth Sullivan & Jon Weber-Piano
The Laurie Beechman Theater at The West Bank Café
407 West 42nd Street
To check out other programs go to the Laurie Beechman website.