SUE MATSUKI’S Very “Hep” Happy Holiday!

Award-winning performer and producer Sue Matsuki couldn’t resist reminding the audience at New York City’s Green Room 42 on Friday, December 2nd that her Yuletide-themed show A “Hep” Happy Holiday was one of the first, if not THE first, New York City holiday cabaret shows of the season.  That’s setting the shining star on the proverbial bough pretty high.  Thankfully, a look at the ingredient list of this cabaret cocktail should have made the audience anticipate that they were in for an amazingly fun, sweet, and funny sleigh ride.  With her trademark combination of talent, personality, and humor, Sue Matsuki has created a show that feels like a handmade Christmas card to her audience.  The audience indeed returned their affection.  As a result, Silent Night became a sing-along, and not a single audience member wasn’t stirrin’ during the perfect rendition of That Holiday Feeling, a duet with Sue’s Special Guest Edd ClarkWinter Wonderland, often the mandatory song for officially kicking off the holiday season, was appropriately upbeat and fun.  Another moment came when the attendees felt that collective moment of anticipation when, during The Christmas Song, Edd Clark delivered those famous lyrics, “Although it’s been said, many times many ways…” To echo the lyrics: Although it’s been sang many times and many ways, it still brought that feeling of hot chocolate-style warmness when Edd flawlessly delivered (Wait for it!) that climactic line: “Merry Christmas… to… YOU…!”  It’s a credit to Sue, Edd, and their musicians that no matter how many times we hear these songs, they sounded cool, fresh, and indeed “hep” on this evening at New York City’s Green Room 42. 

But before the Divine Miss M(atsuki) even delivered her first note, the audience was treated to a medley from the music of Peanuts… which, of course, included the eternal holiday classic Christmas Time is Here. This was Peanuts on musical steroids, kids: not only a crowd-pleaser, but also a fantastic warmup for the upcoming 90% nice, 10% naughty holiday party.  The musicians for this show were Gregory Toroian on piano and co-star vocals (Toroian is also Musical Director.), Skip Ward on bass, and David Silliman on percussion.  When Sue Matsuki did make her way to the stage for the first song (a jazzy, high-energy Sleigh Ride) and sang that eternal lyric, “Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up let’s go!  Let’s look at the show!”, truer words could not have been sung.  

Sue Matsuki’s fans, which include many of her equally talented peers in the world of New York City cabaret, already knew that the singer often puts a personal spin on every one of her song selections.  A “Hep” Happy Holiday is no exception.  Sue shares her stories about memories of Christmases past and present with her own family, which she revealed included seven (!) brothers (Insert “Seven Brides” joke here…)  An Evening in December, therefore, gains new meaning as a deeply personal story about being home for the holidays.  It’s also a stunning example of Sue’s vocal range, with equally astonishing backup vocals by Toroian.  It’s Christmas Time (And I’m a NY Girl in Love) becomes an anthem for all girls from 1 to 92 who get inspired by our world-famous Christmases in “New Yawk”. For Mele Kalikimaka, bassist Skip Ward broke out the ukulele, and Sue showed proof to the audience that she used to teach the hula dance. (Spoiler: She plied her hula trade VERY well, despite her natural modesty…)  It was a priceless moment, and one of many examples of Matsuki’s endearing sense of humor during her performances.  But while Sue can get us to laugh, she can also assure that there won’t be a dry eye in the house.  This came with I’m Gonna Miss You, a song written by Mel Torme which, Matsuki pointed out, never became the classic it should have.  This one doesn’t just tug at the heartstrings; it pulls them so tightly that they’re in danger of snapping.

Sue’s Special Guest for the evening was Edd Clark, who was Matsuki’s co-star for their critically acclaimed annual New York City holiday season show Sue and Edd’s FABULOUS Christmas.  The show, which was performed from 10 years, has been immortalized on CD and via digital formats. Like Matsuki, Clark is a gifted singer with a smart sense of humor. He gave the audience the offbeat, should-be classic Socks.  With lyrics like “Early Christmas morning, sneaky as can be; I creep across the carpet and I peek under the tree.  Pick out a gift from Mom to me, bring it to my ear, Give it a little shimmy-shake and what do I hear?  Socks! (Christmas Socks!)”, it makes us realize that if there’s a bright side to receiving socks as a Christmas present, it was this song– and it was definitely a crowd-pleaser.  To re-state the obvious, the synergy between Clark and Matsuki is no less than phenomenal, which was on full display with their duet That Holiday Feeling and Silent Night.

It may sound like a cliche for a reviewer to praise an artist for their ability to make an ageless classic truly their own.  For Sue and her creative team, however, this is absolutely true. Few entertainers could have the performative ability to move from the hauntingly beautiful Mary, Did You Know, to the feverishly romantic Please Come Home for Christmas, to breaking out the trombone kazoo (Really!) for a funky version of Cool Yule, to resurrecting the little-known yet deliciously twisted Christmas bauble The Pretty Little Dolly. This one has become Sue’s holiday season trademark– and at the risk of using yet another cliche, it must be heard to be believed. And then, of course, there was the finale. As a critic, my own criteria for how well an artist re-works the oft-reworked Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is based on the anticipation with the lyric “Hang a shining star above the highest bough” before bringing it home with “And have yourself a merry little Christmas now…!” Did Sue Matsuki meet my criteria? You won’t need three wise men to figure out the answer!  

Present in the audience that night were many performers from New York City’s cabaret scene, including Tracy Stark, Gretchen Reinhagen, Maria Corsaro, Kati Neiheisel, David Sabella, Laurie Krauz, Becca Kidwell, Leslee Warren, Amanda Scalici, Goldie Dver, and Eva Steinberg. 

If you can’t get enough “Hep” in your holiday, Sue and Edd’s FABULOUS Christmas is available in both CD and digital formats here. It’s recommended as the perfect “hep” holiday gift for both Grinches and people who keep their Christmas decorations up until spring alike… 

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