On Friday, May 19th, cabaret luminary Sue Matsuki took the stage at New York City’s 54 Below for But Beautiful: A Tribute to Julie Wilson. But Beautiful was directed by Lina Koutrakos, one of Matsuki’s frequent creative collaborators., it was a both a night of supreme entertainment and a loving homage to Ms. Wilson, right on down to the framed black-and-white vintage photo atop the piano to remind us that Julie was a stunningly beautiful woman in addition to being a great performer. But Beautiful gave its attendees an exclusive look– through music and Matsuki’s own anecdotes– into the life and creative contributions of the Tony-nominated actress and singer who would rightfully earn the title of “The Queen of Cabaret”. For the multiple award-winning Matsuki, this show was indeed personal: After opening with I’m Gonna Live Till I Die (“I’ll be a devil, ’til I’m an angel– but until then, Hallelujah!”), she described Ms. Wilson as “my mentor, my friend, and my champion for 18 years”. The Arlen/Mercer crowd-pleaser Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive was next, followed by a taste of the irresistible Arlen/Koehler jazz/blues standard I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues. Early on in this show, those who had seen Matsuki perform before were reminded of the fantastic rapport between the singer and her chosen family of musicians: Gregory Toroian on piano (Toroian is also Musical Director/Arranger), Skip Ward on bass, and David Silliman on percussion. The quartet’s joy of performing is no less than fantastic to watch. In fact, if a composer was assigned to create the essence of “joie de vie” in musical form, it would be a safe bet that it would sound a lot like the opening of But Beautiful. Matsuki has received seemingly endless praise for her vocal talents through the years. While it may be a cliche to say that she “sings like an angel”, that’s a pretty accurate description. Anyone needing proof can listen to Matsuki sing the eternal classic Stormy Weather; Never before has melancholy sounded so lush and stunning. The final six syllables of those famous lyrics, “It’s rain-ing all the time”, left a lasting impact. Later on in the show, Matsuki paid tribute to Julie Wilson’s own favorite singer and fast friend Billie Holiday (The gardenia Julie wore in her hair was a symbol of their friendship.) with her haunting version of Good Morning Heartache. Again, Sue may sing like an angel, but rest assured: This angel has a naughty sense of humor, much like her “tough and very direct teacher” whom she was honoring that night. That sense of humor makes Sue perfectly suited to deliver the campy delight Miss Otis Regrets or the Gershwin brothers’ musical bauble Do, Do, Do (“Do, do, do what you’ve done, done, done before, Baby!”). segueing into Cole Porter’s funny The Laziest Gal in Town. Her I’m a Bad Woman, with lyrics like, “I’m a bad, bad, bad, bad, bad woman– but I’m, good, good, good company!”, was part of a medley in tribute to Julie Wilson’s “three shades of vamp” persona. It was absolutely priceless.
In a performance featuring many, many, MANY precious moments of music and storytelling, perhaps the most emblematic of those moments came when Matsuki asked the audience to raise their hands if they knew Julie Wilson and/or were inspired by her. Given the vast number of cabaret dignitaries in attendance that evening (More about that later…), it was perhaps no surprise that a lot of hands were raised. Younger generations may need to be reminded that Wilson was a big star back in gentler times, having appeared in several movies, on TV, and of course on the stage. But many of the people in the audience remember the performer from the, shall we say, “evening” of her life, where she remained a huge supporter of the newer generations of singers. Her social life rivaled many people one third her age; She attended many cabaret shows in her beloved New York. While increasingly frail in stature, her aura was unmistakably mighty, as if she was surrounded by a force field of her own intense, well-earned artistic legacy; She no longer had to “prove” anything. Ms. Wilson also never drifted away from her trademark elegance and class. An acclaimed singer in her own right, Sue Matsuki pointed out that singers sometimes have to EARN the right to sing certain songs, and shouldn’t attempt to “take on” those songs until they are ready– even if it takes decades. In Sue’s case, the song was Send in the Clowns, which needs no description. Let’s just say that it was well worth the wait! Adorned perfectly by Toroian’s piano, this selection brought 54 Below to absolute silence.
Sue Matsuki’s Special Guest that night was Julie Wilson’ easy-on-the-eyes son, actor Holt McCallany, McCallany gave the audience his version of the underheard gem Becoming My Mother, with lyrics specially reworked for his mom’s persona. From the very first line, his performance was a showstopper: It was funny, loving, and… it left the audience wanting more. (Hint, hint…!)
So, about those aforementioned cabaret dignitaries in attendance that evening: A partial list included Frances Hill & Tom Toce, Director and President of Urban Stages; Roy Sander, Sherry Eaker and Gerry Geddes from Bistro Awards; Scott Barbarino from NiteLife Exchange; KT Sullivan, Peter & Linda Hanson, and Russ Woolley from Mabel Mercer Foundation; Elizabeth Sullivan, Sidney Myer, Jeff Harnar, Andre Montgomery, Brian Childers, Rosemary Loar, David Ajax Sabella, Jana Robbins, Ronny Whyte, Julie and Holt’s vocal coach Judith Ferris, Marion Cowings, Laurie Krauz, Lisa Viggiano, Kati Neiheisel, Maria Corsaro, Deb Stone, Jacquie Draper, Diane D’Angelo, Margaret Curry, Joanne Halev, Susan Mack, Audrey Appleby, Joan Crowe, Dawn Derow, Leslee Warren, Goldie Dver, James Beaman, Fred Aiese, Nic & Desi Dromard, Eva Steinberg, and many of the singers who attend Sue Matsuki and Greg Toroian’s Sunday Open Mic & Jazz Brunch at New York City hotspot Pangea.
In addition to her organic talent, wit, and gift for storytelling, Sue Matsuki is known for her fine choice of the songs in her playlists. From audience favorites to songs like If He Were Straight and I Were Young (which deserves to become a new cabaret classic), the music was expertly chosen. And of course, there was the show’s titular number But Beautiful, which couldn’t be a more appropriate closing number (I won’t reveal the show’s breathtaking encore, which seemed patently written for Julie…) That said, what made But Beautiful: A Tribute to Julie Wilson so wonderful was the personal touches by Matsuki. Speaking of Julie, Sue stated early on in her show, “I would not be on this stage tonight if it were not for that woman!” That reason alone is enough to continue to celebrate the legacy of our Queen of Cabaret.
See more at http://www.SueMatsuki.com.
I knew Holt and Julie. Julie was the best friend of Bernadette Moriority. Her daughter Stephanie was a close friend for many years and I always went to their Christmas party or maybe New Years? that Stephanie and her husband Jim gave every year. The actor Chris Noth was usually in attendance as well as his beautiful mother. Great review Jed!
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