Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Stacy Sullivan, the seventh of eight children born in Boggy Depot, Oklahoma, is a long way from her geographic roots, but ever faithful to musical underpinnings. An actress and vocalist, Sullivan has performed in churches, musical theater, straight drama, film, television, commercials, concert halls and cabaret venues as well as recording. The artist currently challenges herself creating iconoclastic new shows for the latter two venues and CDs. Alix Cohen talks with Sullivan about her career choices, collaboration, and the future. Click to listen.
Stacy Sullivan was born into a musical family in Boggy Depot, Oklahoma. She now lives in New York City where she continues to dazzle audiences with her performances, creating new shows that are fresh and exciting. Journalist Alix Cohen, who writes about music and theater, talks with Stacy about her childhood, her musical training, and how she continues to challenge herself with her musical choices.
And so they gather once again like migrated birds instinctively drawn to the annual Cabaret Convention, the smorgasbord of an art still beloved. From all over the country, hotels are booked, other shows ticketed. Some out of town attendees meet only once a year on this occasion, while local denizens take the opportunity to greet favorite artists and compare opinions. The 27th edition of the celebratory event boasts a 15 year-old newcomer as well as performers from London and Australia. Buzz is palpable.
KT Sullivan by Maryann Lopinto
Artistic Director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation/Host, KT Sullivan, opens the show with a high, light version of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.” Tonight, she might be singing about the audience or the extraordinary fascinator perched on her chignon. (Piano-Jon Weber, Bass- Steve Doyle, Drums- Rob Garcia)
Next we’re treated to Robert Creighton who must run to the theater where he’s starring in his own co-written musical Cagney. “No matter what your political leanings, sometimes it’s hard to see how great this country is.” Creighton performs George M. Cohan’s “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” unfathomably without dancing. Renditions are easy, slightly nasal, with apt Cagney inflection. (MD/piano- Matt Perri)
Highlights of the evening follow.
Josephine Bianco; Kelly McDonald by Maryann Lopinto
A finalist at both the Metrostar and Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Academy competitions, 15 year-old Josephine Bianco offers Jule Styne/Bob Merrill’s “People” displaying all the right instincts. The performer takes her time, looks into audience faces, and imbues the number with both personal expression and subtle modulations. Someone to watch.
Burgeoning artist, Kelly McDonald, introduces one of the evening’s few contemporary numbers, “Latte Boy” (Marcy Heisler/ Zina Goldrich). Her vocal is lovely, character embodiment innocent and credible. Kudos to the appealing McDonald for taking a risk. (Piano on both-Jon Weber)
Stacy Sullivan; Natalie Douglas by Stephen Sorokoff
From new CD Stranger in a Dream, we hear Stacy Sullivan’s deft, airbrushed “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (Duke Ellington/Don George/Johnny Hodges/ Harry James) and a well rendered swing selection in which the vocalist shifts octaves like an aerialist (MD/piano-Jon Weber).
The surprising opening of Act II is a buoyant “Helpless” (Lin-Manuel Miranda from Hamilton) featuring Karen Oberlin, KT Sullivan, Natalie Douglas as Eliza and Jon Weber- rapping! (MD/piano-Jon Weber). Douglas is then palpably surprised by winning the Donald F. Smith Award endowed by Adela and Larry Elow. Her interpretation of Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” is beautifully understated. (MD/piano- Mark Hartman)
Vivian Reed and Dancers by Stephen Sorokoff
Broadway’s Vivian Reed unleashes “Sweet Georgia Brown” (Ben Bernie/Maceo Pinkard/Kenneth Casey) as a full production number replete with choreographed backup dancers and bebop scat followed by a gospel “Believe” (admirably without overshooting the mark), which visibly courses through her. (MD/Piano-William Foster McDaniel)
Kristoffer Lowe’s jaunty, tandem “A Quarter to Nine” (Harry Warren/Al Dubin) and “If You Feel Like Singing, Sing” segues from stylish to infectiously happy. Lowe is old school classy. Making his Convention debut, the immensely elegant, decidedly decadent Kim David Smith captivates in English and pristine German with renditions of “Illusions” and “Eine Kleine…” (Piano-Tracy Stark)
Kristoffer Lowe; Kim David Smith by Maryann Lopinto
Irving Berlin’s “It Only Happens When I Dance With You” is married to Amanda McBroom’s poignant “Dance” by Susan Winter who takes us with her on every emotional journey. Shimmering arrangement by MD/pianist Alex Rybeck. The reliably show-stopping Carole J. Bufford erupts into “St. James Infirmary” with powerful vocal from chest to throat, growl to howl, sinuous moves, and a command of the stage we rarely see. (Matt Baker-piano, Tom Hubbard-bass, Rob Garcia-drums, Charlie Coranics- superior Trumpet)
Maureen McGovern is appreciatively presented this year’s Mabel Mercer Award. The artist then sings two immensely original takes on numbers from The Wizard of Oz (Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg): a charming preface of “Optimistic Voices” (You’re out of the woods…) leads to an a capella and acoustic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” which one can only call indelible. Showcasing her range, McGovern then delivers an ardent, “Blues in the Night” (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer) with an entirely different voice. Wow. (MD/Piano-Jeff Harris)
Maureen McGovern by Stephen Sorokoff
Also featuring: Two Randy Newman songs from Karen Oberlin-one appealingly shadowy, the other, a dissonantly paired political ditty (Piano-Jon Weber); T. Oliver Reid’s bubbly “I’m Throwin’ a Ball Tonight” by Cole Porter (MD/Piano-Larry Yurman); A warm Fran Landesman/Alec Wilder number from Barbara Fasano who makes us empathize with every sentiment (Piano-Eric Comstock); Stephan Bednarczyk’s angry take on Noel Coward’s “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs. Worthington” which defangs implicit wit…
Jacob Storms, whose voice is like an articulated hum, chooses two iconic songs on which he unfortunately leaves no personal stamp. (Piano-Jon Weber) Eric Yves Garcia’s rendition of Cole Porter’s “I’m A Gigolo” emerges vocally forced instead of insouciant, though the artist is capable of the latter. It should be noted, to my knowledge, this is the first time superb performer Leslie Hutchenson,“Hutch,” has been mentioned on the Convention stage. If you don’t know his work, I highly recommend research.
Barbara Fasano; Matt Baker by Stephen Sorokoff
Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” is evocatively performed by Matt Baker including breathy vocal and arrangement that sounds like fine, 1950s jazz. (Bass-Endea Owens, Drums-Darrian Douglas) He’s less successful with an over long, dense interpretation of the theme from The Apartment (Charles Williams.) Crowd pleaser Christina Bianco safely repeats her Kander and Ebb “Cabaret” turn for the umpteenth time, imitating such as Julie Andrews and Judy Garland. The talented vocalist might consider moving on. (Piano-Jon Weber)
Thanks to Steve Doyle and Ron Hubbard, bassists, Rob Garcia-drums.
The evening ran a long 2 ½ hours, but offered many rewarding performances.
I would call this an appreciation. I’ve listened to Stranger in a Dream several times now, hearing something new or drifting at different junctures each pass. The recording is, in fact, dreamy. Though ostensibly a celebration of Marian McPartland inspired by Stacey Sullivan’s appearance on Jon Weber’s radio show, Piano Jazz, the two musicians have made these songs their own.
This is music you want to hear wrapped in someone’s arms, sharing a romantic dinner or working your way through a bottle of good wine. Vocals are often diaphanous, phrasing deft, accompaniment sensitive.
Sullivan sighs into Stephen Sondheim’s “Loving You.” The ends of phrases leave afterglow. Its brief instrumental is meditative. An elegant rendition. “Stranger in a Dream” (Irving Caesar/ Marian McPartland) evokes shadows, curling smoke, collars up, alleyways. We’re beckoned by Steve Doyle’s haunting bass. Vocal is almost visibly sinuous. I imagine the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, replete with hookah. “In the Days of Our Love” (Peggy Lee/Marian McPartland) is like sorting through packets of faded, ribbon-bound love letters and stained, curling photographs. Jon Weber’s piano caresses.
“Oh What a Beautiful Mornin” (Rodgers and Hammerstein) is borne by an uncommonly original arrangement. Distant clop, clop horse-hoof-vamp fades to the languid, waking singer, rubbing sleep from her eyes, stretching, putting on coffee, optimistic perhaps in the wake of a good dream. Sullivan makes this intimate rather than the vast cornfields to which we’re accustomed; ‘one woman’s experience.
“September in the Rain”and “Come Away With Me” (Al Dubin; Nora Jones/Harry Warren)-an inspired pairing, offer escape rather than brooding reflection. Bone-damp ghostliness is broken by light, stage left at the back. A second surprising combination arrives with “All the Things You Are” (Oscar Hammerstein/Jerome Kern) and Chopin’s Waltz in B Minor Opus 69 #2. ‘Just beautiful.
Even classic swing numbers, though up-tempo, are predominantly subdued. A cottony “Prelude to a Kiss” (Duke Ellington/Irving Gordon/Irving Mills) never gets dense or insistent;“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing)” and Ellington’s “Jump for Joy” eschew pounding boogie woogie – though footwork is fancy and the girl goes flying. During “Lullaby of Birdland” (George Shearing/George David Weiss), Sullivan elongates her lyric while Weber’s fast, precise piano jitterbugs on its own caffeinated recognizance and Doyle’s bass sounds like a syncopated hummingbird.
“Castles in the Sand” (Walter Marks/Marian McPartland), one of my particular favorites, begins a capella like a child’s rope skipping song. It’s young, buoyant and somehow delicate. Nick Russo’s strings tickle.
Musicianship is grand. Overall feelings: pleasure.
Opening: Left photo: Maryann Lopinto; CD photo-Bill Westmoreland
Internal Photo: Stephen Sorokoff
Stacy Sullivan-Stranger in a Dream
Jon Weber- MD/Piano, Steve Doyle-Bass, Nick Russo-Guitar & Mandolin Click to buy on Harbinger
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!
A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. A bird sings because it has a song. Chinese proverb
Every year on her birthday, Elizabeth Sullivan, matriarch of the formidably musical family, flies to New York from Oklahoma for a blow out party. The tree from which these talented apples fall not far is herself a songwriter and vocalist. Sullivans from all over gather at a local club-Sunday it was the packed-to-the-gills Metropolitan Room, to share their talents with friends, fans and each other. It’s a love fest.
Ever elegant, Elizabeth, who turned 86 this year and looks well over ten years younger, begins with a group of her own compositions. “You Are the Reason I Sing My Song”/You are the why of it all/Without you listening, it would go so wrong… It drifts down with utter warmth and sincerity. We sway.
Stacy Sullivan, Robin Brooks Sullivan, Elizabeth Sullivan, KT Sullivan
Songs are brief, poetic, personal. If you didn’t know her you might imagine Elizabeth a good actress. The truth is that every lyric grows from her heart like a flower. She seems authentic because she is. Communication and sensitivity more than make up for a wavering word or note not quite reached. ‘Om puttin’ things on the back burner/ Serving up what’s good tonight/’Om thinking soon or maybe later/I’ll hear a tune and get a rhyme…(“Back Burner”) emerges riding a kick-back-and-rock-on-the-porch two step.
Where there never was a box/Then there never was a limit… (“Out of the Box”) is wise yet light. Elizabeth’s voice rises like an upward sigh, a feather on a breeze. She performs “Without a Song” (Vincent Youmans and Edward Eliscu) with depth of investment that makes it feel as if she were the author. For “Song of the Chimes,” (her own) the performer is joined by 6 year-old granddaughter Layla Elizabeth Sullivan, bending down to duet with the very pretty girl at her own level. Some of it is stage-whispered adding to delicacy. They make quite a picture.
Elizabeth Sullivan and Layla Elizabeth Sullivan; Montana Sullivan
KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation and Elizabeth’s daughter in law, Robin Brooks Sullivan, share one of the writer’s signature songs, “As Long As We Sing.” Written in honor of Mabel Mercer, the number is a moving, cabaret anthem. The ladies harmonize.
KT then offers Elizabeth’s “How Were We To Know?” inspired by her unexpected meeting of husband-to-be, Stephen Downey. (It’s a charming story.) Despite his opening salvo, including somewhat daunting references to his mother and five children, both apparently “knew.” How could we miss/The promise of that thrill/Spinning in our bliss/ Above a world gone still…Lovely. Robin returns on guitar and vocal for Bobby Troup’s “Route 66” which arrives with pith, spit and lively, country twang.
The Sullivans have each chosen his or her own musical path/genre. Robin’s son, young Montana Sullivan, offers “Soul”, a classically tinted piano solo of his own composition. I hear insistence, fluency, spirit…a stream, creek, river, waterfall, the ocean…unstoppable momentum with pauses preparing waves. The piece is evocative and well played.
Granddaughter Savannah Elizabeth Brown who has recently embarked upon her own singing/acting career, has chosen the charming “Bubbly” (Colbie Caillat/Jason Reeves.) “The song is about a lover, but I’m gonna bring it back to my grandma because I think I had my boyfriend sold when I showed him what I’d look like at 86.” Guitar in hand, with backup by her mother, vocalist Stacy Sullivan, and Montana on piano, Savannah exhibits vocal qualities like Elizabeth and Stacy-she can float a melody. Harmony is appealing, the song diaphanous.
Savannah Elizabeth Brown and Stacy Sullivan
Stacy then takes center stage for “Lullaby of Birdland” (George Shearing/B.Y. Foster) accompanied by Jon Weber’s up, UP-tempo jazz piano and Tom Hubbard’s fast-as-hummingbirds’-wings-bass. A performer able to successfully embrace many genres, she delivers both percussive and lyrical verses with finesse. Stacy, Robin, KT and Elizabeth then share the nostalgic “Where My Picture Hangs on the Wall” (Elizabeth Sullivan), a song about home Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz) would’ve treasured.
Elizabeth closes with more of her own material including one of my favorites, the deeply romantic “Not Tonight”, written for her husband’s 70th birthday (Mr. Sullivan passed.) There may be a time when I’ll not want you/But not tonight, not tonight… The room then joins in “Friends” whose partial lyrics adorn a flyer left on tables. Singing or not, every soul in the room feels the love.
The Family (Tom Hubbard on bass-background)
This evening’s concert was accompanied by the superb Tom Hubbard on bass and Musical Director Dennis Buck on piano. Mr. Buck, with whom I am unfamiliar, subtly tailors arrangements in service of both composition and artist. He plays with terrific finesse and an ear to wind change.
Sunday May 22, 2016
Photos by Maryann Lopinto Opening: Elizabeth Sullivan