By Stephen Holden
New York Times
May 10, 2011
One of the pleasures of cabaret reviewing over the long haul has been to observe the evolution of KT Sullivan from an effervescent musical comedian into the increasingly fearless and complex singing character actor she is today. Her new show, which opened at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel last week, is called “Rhyme, Women and Song,” but it might just as well be titled “The Seven Ages of Woman,” for all the musical and emotional territory she covers.
This is not to say that Ms. Sullivan has sacrificed the charm of her original comic persona — a voluptuous, eye-batting Lorelei Lee type — to plunge into doom and gloom. Not at all. It is to say that beneath the glittery icing, as Luther Vandross once said of Diana Ross, lies “a serious cake.”
All the songs in “Rhyme, Women and Song” are written in whole or in part by women. Dorothy Fields, Carolyn Leigh, Kay Swift, Betty Comden, Dorothy Parker, Marilyn Bergman and Joni Mitchell are some of them. Accompanying Ms. Sullivan at the Oak Room are two (unrelated) musicians with almost identical names: Jon Weber, on piano, and John Webber, on bass, who give several numbers a solid jazz kick.
The changes in style and mood from song to song are so quick that at times “Rhyme, Women and Song” suggests a sequence of lightning-fast blackout sketches. But there is a rough through line under it all. Early in the show a medley of “Don’t Let a Good Thing Get Away,” “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “The Other Side of the Tracks” becomes a suite about a woman’s determined upward mobility in which Ms. Sullivan doesn’t disguise the connections between romantic aspiration and material calculation.
She puts her stamp on a jazzy arrangement of Ms. Mitchell’s “Case of You,” by giving the words “still be on my feet” a defiant emphasis. Two little-known ballads, “How Am I to Know?” (lyrics by Parker, music by Jack King) and “He’ll Make Me Believe That He’s Mine” (music by Paul Horner, lyrics by Peggy Lee, from the 1983 musical “Peg”), are exquisitely crooned. Where once Ms. Sullivan might have raised an eyebrow while singing these ballads of abject surrender, she ventures all the way inside their treacherous dream worlds.
For “Please Don’t Send Me Down a Baby Brother” she adopts the voice of a stubborn, willful little child, and for “I Can Cook Too” she becomes a tough, swaggering go-getter. She locates the desperation inside the housewife subsisting on tabloid fantasies in Amanda McBroom’s “Dreaming.” In the end Ms. Sullivan’s natural ebullience and perfect comic timing transport you to a blissful plateau.
RHYME, WOMEN AND SONG
By Elizabeth Ahlfors
May 3, 2011
With the slightest lift of the eyebrows, most subtle tilt of the head, KT Sullivan communicates her songs with singular understanding. At this point in her career, she is a standard of interpretation. She does breezy comedy better than almost any singer around, using her expressive face, precise timing and immaculate phrasing and vocal stress. In the witty lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s “I Can Cook Too,” her soprano voice lowers to audaciously blare, “Baby, I’m cooking with gas!” In the romantic “It Amazes Me” (Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman), Sullivan sinks into its reverie, her voice slowly relishing the line, “But to see me in his eyes…” the audience leaning forward, caught in the spell.
Through the month of May, KT Sullivan delivers Woman Power with Rhyme, Women & Song, 25 standards all written by women and her standards were high, beginning with a jazz-flavored medley of Kay Swift tunes delivered by Weber and Webber, that’s Musical Director Jon Weber on piano and John Webber on bass. With amusing anecdotes tucked between, Sullivan delivers almost a collection of songs from Edna B. Pinkard and Andy Razaf’s sassy “Kitchen Man” to the poignant “Where Do You Start?” by Alan and Marilyn Bergman with Johnny Mandel.
The majority of songs came from the most prolific writers, Leigh, Dorothy Fields and Swift, but Sullivan also included fine songs by unfamiliar names like Maria Grever (“What a Difference A Day Made” sung in Spanish), Irene Higgenbotham’s “Good Morning Heartache”(with Dan Fisher and words by Ervin Drake who was in the audience) and Vivien Wolsk (“When the Children Are Gone”). The latter led into a nifty anecdote about one of Sullivan’s grandchildren. She then put down the mic for a dry, hilarious, childish plea, “Please Don’t Send Me Down a Baby Brother” (Fields and Arthur Schwartz).
In one of her astute medleys, Sullivan cleverly paired Fields and Jimmy McHugh’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street” with Leigh and Coleman’s “On the Other Side of the Tracks,” a two-handed delivery of determination. A medley of snippets of 29 more songs closed the show — 29 because, she quipped, that’s her age.
Acknowledging contemporary standards that endure, Sullivan included a Joni Mitchell favorite, “A Case of You.” And how clever is an encore with the Carole King/Gerry Goffin hit, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” She then added the sumptuous Fields/Jerome Kern classic, “The Way You Look Tonight,” closing a sparkling, varied program.
KT continues at the Oak Room Tuesdays through Saturdays through May 28.