A Night at the Troubadour: Presenting Elton John and David Ackles brings together vocalist Stacy Sullivan, Director/Arranger Mark Nadler and MD/Pianist Yasuhiko Fukuoka whose collective talent, passion, and creativity are flat out extraordinary.
August 25, 1970: a young, British, writer/performer named Elton John was scheduled to make his American debut opening for established writer/performer David Ackles at the Troubadour rock club in West Los Angeles. Ackles, Stacy Sullivan tells us, turned to his wife and said, “I hope this kid’s good.” At the last minute, record executives switched the order. John listened from offstage. Like Elvis Costello and Phil Collins, he was an ardent admirer and champion of Ackles. Who?!
David Ackles was a child actor, literature and film major before he pursued his dream of songwriting. As the dark, literate material he wrote for others never seemed to fit, it was suggested that like popular singer/songwriters of the time, he perform his own work. The artist was never comfortable touring. With only four albums issued in an abbreviated life (he died of cancer at 62), Ackles nonetheless made a lasting impression on other musicians.
Twenty-four years after that night at the Troubadour, Stacy Sullivan was cast in a musical written by David Ackles. They became close friends. She sang at his funeral. A heartfelt note from Bernie Taupin (John’s lyricist) read aloud suddenly alerted her to a musical past the deceased had never mentioned.
This show, clearly a labor of love, may have been gestating ever since. Sullivan introduces, illuminates and appreciates Ackles; establishes dominion over iconoclastic, often musically difficult material, and excavates personal emotions. Selected numbers by Elton John/Bernie Taupin are included to fine effect.
The piece is bookended by “Your Song” (John/Taupin). When initially paired with Ackles’ “Be My Friend,” the entire room leans in to Sullivan’s entreaty. Next, is “Everybody Has a Story” which illustrates the humanity and perception of its writer: Everybody has a story/Everybody has a tale to tell/Lies spoken, hearts broken, Lost in Hell…All you have to do is listen …It’s a one act play musically influenced by Brecht and Weill. The vocalist, an actress, is at one point down on her haunches earnestly addressing a woman up front.
“American Gothic” tells the tale of a poor farmer’s wife who craves more than her narrow existence. The story-song also evinces Weimar roots. A moment of wry directorial humor is delicious. As she begins “Down River,” Sullivan puts her hands in her pockets, cowed, serious, awkward, proud. She’s a man just released from prison meeting the girlfriend who never wrote. Piano chords support a battleworn vocal, rich with unspoken forbearing. Eyes look ahead seeing nothing. Sullivan inhabits the character’s ache.
“I’ve Been Loved,” a gentle, hurdy-gurdy melody evoking old people whose memories sustain them and “House Above The Strand,” (boardwalk along the California Ocean), a tender lyric including humming and a proposal, offer the illusion of lighter fare. The latter, it seems, could have been written for Sullivan’s first year of marriage. We watch her see it again with a heart that appears to visibly expand.
Three tandem numbers show particular musical acuity. “Laissez-Faire” (Ackles) and “Levon” (John/Taupin) are spat out in resigned outrage, then become a prayer against ugly odds. Entwined renditions are powerful, moving. Sullivan’s husky contralto is enveloped by darkness even when backed by up-tempo rhythm. Piano is insidious, inescapable, haunting. The singer is palpably shaken, her last line exhaled.
Ackles’ “Your Face, Your Smile,” initially heard by Sullivan at his memorial, became the first song she ever recorded. It’s a necessary goodbye wrenched from the depths of despair and lands with visceral effect. Barely pausing, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” (John/ Taupin) begins with spoken lyric : “I can’t light no more of your darkness/All my pictures seem to fade to black and white…” Delicate piano tiptoes. This version is measured, transfixing, it’s howl withheld. You can hear a pin drop.
In order to experience as close to firsthand experience as possible, we hear a recorded excerpt from “Love’s Enough” with Ackles singing. Slightly sandy, deep and expressive, it’s the kind of voice in which one wants to wrap oneself. Sullivan then comes in fervent but quiet with “Your Song.” The moment shimmers.
To my mind only “Rocket Man”, paired with Ackles “Road to Cairo” (Cairo, Indiana), emerges excessive – as if evangelical testimony.
Yasuhiko Fukuoka, Stacy Sullivan, Mark Nadler
MD/Pianist Yasuhiko Fukuoka is equally adept at controlled detonation, enthralling pathos, and deft sensitivity. His symbiotic attention to the needs of an actress in thrall is expert.
Director/Arranger Mark Nadler has the cultural acumen to mine every bit of subtext. His extensive musical vocabulary offers nuanced underpinning even when emphatic. Nadler channels Sullivan’s focus into theatrical performance without gratuitous gestures. We believe every gutsy embodiment. The show is well paced and thoroughly engaging.
Dialogue is revealing, beautifully integrated, and often intimate. The artist’s signature warmth overflows. This is a brave piece, an achievement. Stacy Sullivan’s unconditional investment and muscular performance is one for the books. She excels as a keeper of the flame. Brava!
(With any luck, they’ll do this again)
Photos by Steve Friedman
July 14, 2016
The Metropolitan Room
34 West 22 Street