SUE MATSUKI Is a Little Bit Country and a Little Bit Blues in GENRES at the Metropolitan Room
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
As a 20-year cabaret veteran and 10-time MAC Award nominee (winning three), Sue Matsuki is nothing if not ambitious and a tad pretentious. How else to explain someone with both the chutzpah and the checkbook to stage a run of four shows at the Metropolitan Room (soon to become six) in which each show covers a different musical genre with a totally different set list and employs different directors, musical directors and bands? Just writing that sentence has me clutching my checkbook for deal life.
Matsuki's motivation for this eclectic mix of one-off shows, cleverly called Genres, is that she and her hubby are soon to embark on a long overseas odyssey that will place her on the performing shelf for a while. Hence, the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink series of shows that launched in August with Jazz and Latin Standards, was followed up last Saturday afternoon with a Country and Blues theme (directed by Gretchen Reinhagen), and will continue over the next three to four months with Musical Comedy (with the emphasis on travel songs), a Holiday Season show, songs from the '60s, '70s, and '80s, and a Swing theme. One has to admire Matsuki for possessing the confidence and ability to attempt pulling off a series of shows that requires dozens of song arrangements in multiple styles. She's obviously willing to run the risk of being perceived as a Jill-of-all-musical-genres, master-of-none.
If her second show in the series last Saturday served as an example, Matsuki is certainly professional, polished, and talented enough to produce an entertaining set in any genre. Backed by a cool all-female orchestra she cheekily labeled "The Broadband"--featuring Musical Director Tracy Stark on piano, Debbie Kennedy on bass, Donna Kelly on drums (with special guests in guitarist Sean Harkness and harmonica chick Hope Berkeley)--and solid arrangements from Stark, Matsuki vocals were consistently strong. But to paraphrase Donny & Marie, she was only a little bit Country and just a little bit Blues. Most of the song interpretations were totally Cabaret, but thankfully not to the extent of cliché, and that along with Matsuki's natural and engaging stage presence and keen sense of humor, kept the audience in her corner throughout.
Matsuki took the stage decked out completely in black, as if she was a female version of Johnny Cash. A floor length tuxedo jacket garnished with some bling provided by Sue's cabaret colleague Dana Lorge topped off her outfit. She opened with an original song taken from the show's title, a clever, bluesy number that Stark wrote from Matsuki's lyrics. "The genre doesn't matter when the music's in your soul," sang Sue. Ain't it the truth. While her follow up song "Breakfast Blues" set a fun, light tone (especially with lyrics like "I doughnut love you no more" and "I ain't gonna quiche you any more"), her self-penned cabaret standard (written in 2006 with Gregory Toroain), "The White Girls Can Sing the Blues, Blues," which was her finale, might have been more appropriate up front to get the excitement level up early in the show, especially given the theme.
Sprinkled throughout a set of 15 songs were cute tales of Matsuki growing up in a Connecticut biker family with seven brothers, and quickie blues tunes built around nursery rhymes. She applied her smooth alto to mezzo soprano range to cool arrangements of "Chain of Fools," Melody Gardot's "Worrisome Heart" (during which she shamelessly flirted with a blushing Harkness), and a nifty, out-of-the-box mash up of "Tennessee Waltz" with "In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning." On the country side, one of the more touching numbers in the set was "This Time," 2008 MAC Award nominated Bob Levy/Karen Jacobsen ballad about the rocky relationship of a couple sung from the point of view of their child. Not as effective were the country and Blues numbers that, while technically fine, would have benefited from an edgier, more sensual sound, such as country-esque pop hits like Carrie Underwood's 2009 "Cowboy Casanova" and Alannah Myles' 1989 hit "Black Velvet," and Aretha Franklin's 1967 R&B hit "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man."
Many of these country and Blues tunes are most effective in a concert-like setting where the singer can strut her stuff with some movement on top of powerful vocals. Matsuki's approach on many of these numbers was a bit too static and loungy and the songs lacked some juice. She may be a white girl who can sing the Blues (and Country and Jazz and Latin and Broadway and Swing, etc, etc.) and deliver a solid show, but perhaps concentrating her focus on just one genre would have made for an even more compelling evening of cabaret.