Sue Matsuki’s “38 Seasons of Love” at Feinstein’s/54 Below: A Review!

It is probably a cliche for any reviewer to declare that an artist was “at their finest” at a particular performance– especially when that artist, even after 38 years of show business, gives every performance with the enthusiasm of an ingenue who is just getting started… and who shows no signs of slowing down.  Award-winning cabaret star Sue Matsuki proudly declares in her official biography that she “has played every club in New York from Birdland to Feinstein’s to the Iridium… and has even played Carnegie Hall and The Metropolitan Opera!”  Still, I am going to give into that aforementioned cliche and say that Matsuki’s latest production, appropriately named 38 Seasons of Love, was the epitome of Sue’s well-earned style of star quality.  Matsuki mentioned how her audience that night was largely made up of her peers from the various worlds of New York City entertainment… and that there were, in fact, too many for Sue (or this reviewer, for that matter) to acknowledge by name.  Given that, their presence at Feinstein’s/54 Below on Thursday, June 2nd elevated the night from “show” to bona fide “cabaret event”.  Packing a wallop of a song list into a 70-minute running time, Matsuki gave the audience a new selection of numbers ranging from haunting ballads to kitschy musical candy.  The set list included many tried-and-true crowd pleasers from the likes of Cole Porter to Elvis Costello to Van Morrison, as well as many musical gems that have been begging to be heard again… or, for many of the audience, for the first time. (Frasier, The Sensuous Lion, anyone?) Matsuki’s meticulous song selection process has always been one of the singer’s calling cards, but that is only one.  Her engaging personality, which comes across through both her songs and through her storytelling in between the notes, is another.  (More about both later…)  But of course, when it comes down to it, there’s… the voice! To borrow from Porter’s From This Moment On: When Matsuki delivers the lyric, “Every care is gone, from this moment on…” it perfectly established how the audience felt when Matsuki sang her first note.

Talent attracts talent, and Matsuki has indeed surrounded herself with plenty of it.  Her lovely backup singers, Maria Corsaro and Kati Neiheisel, are both established singers who have received critical acclaim with their own one-woman shows.  At the very opening of the evening, Matsuki asked, “How do you measure singing 38 years?”  We learned that 38 years of music is about 19,972,800 minutes, before Sue kicked off with (38) Seasons of Love from Rent.  When Matsuki, Corsaro, and Neiheisel combined forces for that deliciously drawn out last “LOVE” in the final verse, the moment was the equivalent of the first ray of sun poking through a spring sky.  The show features Gregory Toroian on piano, Skip Ward on bass, and David Silliman on percussion. Let’s just say that there are rewards in working with the same musicians for a long time: The synergy between Matsuki and these three easy-on-the-eyes men really comes across. Toroian, in particular, got a shoutout as her longtime and still frequent collaborator.  His piano work is astonishing, perhaps best exemplified during one of Sue’s “signature” songs– a jazzy version of Moondance.  Torosian’s piano work created a parallel, very palpable undercurrent of both longing and… anticipation!  Speaking of which: Very few artists can take a classic so identified with its artist– in this case, Carly Simon’s Anticipation— and truly make it their own.  Matsuki shared that the song was the result of the creative process between herself and Toroian… and as a result, Matsuki’s hauntingly beautiful version, sang later on in the show, becomes a musical metaphor for the journey of any artist.  For the audience, it was truly a transcendent moment to hear Sue sing, “Stay right here, ’cause these are the good old days...”  Later on, we heard the second of Matsuki’s signature songs, I’ll Close My Eyes.  This one is, indeed, “quintessential Sue”.

In one of those previously mentioned moments of storytelling, Matsuki paid loving tribute to one of her mentors, the late Julie Wilson.  Wilson, who was nominated for a Tony Award in 1989, is widely regarded as “The Queen of Cabaret”. Matsuki recalled when Wilson sang Autumn Leaves to her.  This night, it was the audience’s turn to hear it. Complete with truly haunting bass by Skip Ward, vocals to match by Sue, and the lyrics “But I miss you most of all, My darling; When autumn leaves, Start to fall…”, there was unlikely a dry eye in the theater for that number.  Another powerful moment came with Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars, an oft-redone bossa nova classic written by Antonio Carlos Jobim.  Sung by Sue with only minimal adornment from her musicians, the song– a musical encapsulation of the Matsukis’ honeymoon in the Amazon jungle (Really!)– was yet another provocative moment.  Too Darn Hot, an audience favorite, segued into Heatwave. Was it intentional lighting effects, or just the combined heat from Sue, Maria, and Kati that seemed to turn the back wall of the stage a searing red?

Sue Matsuki is indeed a class act, which makes her particular suited for Feinstein’s/54 Below’s upscale aesthetic.  Yet Matsuki is absolutely not afraid to show her playful side to the audience, with a double dose of musical mirth: The first was I Don’t Know, a blues song which Sue discovered; astonishingly, no writing credits are available.  Sue and her backup singers clearly loved camping it up with this one.  Next was I Don’t Want Love from Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks.  How could you not love lyrics like, “If love make you give up ham and greens, Chicken pot pie and lima beans; If love make you give up all those things, I don’t want love!”? The audience sure… ahem, “ate it up”, making it a clap-along.  Later on, Sue gave us You Smell So Good, an unabashedly silly song… but no one could dare say it’s not, well, catchy.  Sue performs with just the right amount of tongue in cheek.  The hands down comedic winner of the night’s playlist, however, was the campy delight Frasier, the Sensuous Lion, one of those mega-rare baubles of baud that are begging to be heard again– complete with references to “lion Viagra”. This one has to be heard to be believed. 

After a “Sweet 16” of songs, there was indeed an encore.  I won’t give it away… except to say that it was indeed a love song to Sue Matsuki’s audience.  All I can say is, here’s to another 38 years… or maybe, another 19,972,800 minutes!

Sue Matsuki’s 38 Seasons of Love at Feinstein’s/54 Below was Directed by David Sabella and Lina Koutrakos, with Musical Direction and Arrangement by Gregory Toroian.  Photo of Sue by Eric Stephen Jacobs.

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