What becomes a cabaret star most?
Wow, where do we start? The first things that come to mind are stage presence, connection to the audience, respect for the legacy of music, and… talent! The talents of Award-winning multi-hyphenate (singer-songwriter-author-comedian-columnist-teacher… Whoa!) Sue Matsuki are innumerable, but one of her greatest skills is selecting the music which she uses in her performances. She has a way of making even the most oft-redone classics truly her own: Therefore, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Something Wonderful from The King and I reminds us that love is still alive and well, although Sue’s version is more about seasoned realism than feverishly idealistic romanticism. Matsuki also has an affinity for having one beloved musical gem smoothly segue into another– and so, we have the phenomenon of having two great songs that sound even better together, while creating an entirely new vibe in the process. This was a technique which Matsuki utilized frequently on her timeless 2001 CD A New Take. The audience at the famous East Village performance hotspot Pangea on Saturday, November 20th (which, incidentally, was Sue’s birthday…) was warmed up rom the impending cold weather with It’s Love (from Wonderful Town) transitioning into Love Walked In (from The Goldwyn Follies). Yes, peeps: In case it’s not obvious by now, this show is a selection of well-known standards and a few rare gems from the transgenerational world of Broadway and made-for-TV musicals. And, what was overwhelmingly clear is that the opening number, with all its singing about L-O-V-E, was Sue’s love song to her audience. Matsuki, who acknowledged that she is admiringly known by some as the “Godmother of Cabaret”, has an enviable rapport with that audience. While part of this comes with her well-earned reputation as a performer (as evidenced by the “Who’s Who? of Cabaret” in attendance that night; More about that later…), I’d also add that it comes with her skills as a storyteller: Sue likes to talk in between songs, and many times, her choice of numbers has some connection with her own life. Hence, Whatever Lola Wants (from Damn Yankees) becomes a song about Sue, her husband, and an emotionally needy adopted kitten (!). Moving from the whimsical to the provocative, Where or When (from Babes In Arms)/I Remember (from Evening Primrose) becomes a bittersweet, musicalized interpretation of the true story of a beloved relative with Alzheimer’s.
But lest we forget to mention, this delightful show has a name: This Broad’s Way, a cleverly fitting double play on showbiz lexicon. This night was the finale in a four-show run at Pangea. Many reviewers, including myself, have praised Matsuki’s vocal talents in the past, both in her recorded work and in her prolific schedule of live shows. You will NEVER hear Ms. Matsuki treat any lyric or musical note as a throwaway But if anyone watching this singer for the first time needs proof of her perfect delivery, they get it early on when Sue croons the says-it-all lyric, “Wanna sing a show-TUUUUUNE…!” from the song of the same name, symbolically raising that final syllable to new vocal heights. Mentioning everything and everyone from Hello Dolly to the late Stephen Sondheim, the song is a campy delight (It was, after all, from a 1982 episode of The Love Boat.) Yet Sue elevates the kitschy lyrics to her own patented high level of class. That said, Matzuki does indeed have fun with her audience: She and her three-man band (Gregory Toroian on piano, Skip Ward on bass, and David Silliman on drums) gave the audience a highly stylized, ultra-campy version of Stepsister’s Lament from Cinderella. With the singer delivering lines like “Why would a fellow want a girl like her, A frail and fluffy beauty? Why can’t a fellow ever once prefer, A solid girl like me?“, it’s perfectly suited for Sue’s particular sense of street-smart (as in 42nd Street) humor, complete with facial expressions. Taking a cue from a one person’s sarcastic observation that the MAC Awards (of which Sue has won three and has been nominated for eleven) are “just a popularity contest”, Sue and her band gave a bossa nova-flavored take on Popular from Wicked, one of the more recent Broadway songs that has penetrated pop culture. A real crowd-pleaser, I’m going to be bold enough to say that Matsuki’s version is better than the original, with just enough of the song’s trademark sweetness but enough tongue-in-cheek sarcasm to avoid mass tooth decay. The Ballad of Swingin’ Todd from 1979’s Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (arranged by John McMahon) becomes a jazzed-up, deliciously funny romp, and gives bassist Skip Ward a special spotlight to show off his bass skills. While we are on the subject, all of her superb (and easy-on-the-eyes as well) band members get their moments to shine. Toroian’s piano work at the conclusion of Cole Porter’s So In Love from Kiss Me Kate is astounding, as is Silliman’s drum solo in Porter’s From This Moment On from Out of This World. Matsuki’s delivery of that song, by the way, is no less than triumphant. While Sue can be often laugh-out-loud funny, she can also amazingly convey that oh-so-powerful sense of melancholy, as she does with When I Look in Your Eyes, an obscure number from Dr. Doolittle. Remember that “seasoned realism” mentioned earlier? The audience gets more of that with Sue’s achingly provocative new take on Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm (from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying)/Dear Tom (from Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road), a musical mini-drama which prompted Sue to remind us: “Not all endings are happy… but they’re not always endings.” That said, even Matsuki’s songs about heartbreak become more about empowerment and hope.
As the show came to a close, Sue gave the audience another musical showbiz curio which, like several others, seemed custom chosen and fine-tuned for the audience, most of whom were Matzuki’s fellow artists. (Again, more about that later!) The song was God Bless The Other 99, from Barry Manilow: Live on Broadway. It was a song begging to be heard again.
So, about the audience. It was clear that night at Pangea that Sue Matsuki is “a performer’s performer”. As Sue herself declared, “The best gift is to have a house full of performers!” Her birthday wish was apparently fulfilled, as many members of the “cabaret elite”, if you will, were in attendance. A partial list of attendees included Richard Skipper, Maria Corsaro, Kati Neihesel, David Sabella, Diane D’Angelo, Joanne Halev, Deanna Monaco, Laurie Krauz, Natasha Castillo, Bobbie Horowitz, and Gerry Geddes. Of course, there was an encore, but I won’t give it away. I WILL say, however, that just as the first number was a love song to her audience, the closer “renewed the vows” so to speak. On a grander scale, This Broad’s Way is also a love song to the New York City cabaret world at large.
This Broad’s Way was Directed by Lina Koutrakos with Musical Direction and Arrangement by Gregory Toroian. Visit www.SueMatsuki.com for more information on future shows and all things Sue!