CABARET LIFE NYC: Anatomy of a Duo Show--Classy, Entertaining, Yet Flawed KT Sullivan/Jeff Harnar Sondheim Set at the Beechman Is All About Choices
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Staging any successful cabaret show isn't just about singing talent, acting skill, and having a gift of on-stage gab. It's just as much about CHOICES; the choice of the show theme, structure, songs, set order, script, musical director, musicians, and director (if one is required). While in some of those categories there can be many good choices, in others one misguided choice can set a show careening off course. Some people might argue, and rightly so, that choices are purely subjective. What may seem like the wrong choice to some, say, a cabaret show reviewer, for example, can be a brilliant epiphany to the performer or director who made the choice.
The current Stephen Sondheim tribute show, Our Time, starring KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar at the Laurie Beechman (which I attended on July 9 and 16; there are two more Wednesday performances at 6pm on August 6, 13), is a charming, classy, and entertaining affair. But it also includes enough flaws in execution to prevent it from being truly great. For one thing, it doesn't really feel like a duo show. It's more like two solo performances within one show, where the performers fit in a couple of numbers together to justify the concept. Maybe I haven't been around cabaret long enough to know better (four years come October), but it seems the duo cabaret act is undergoing a slight transformation. In addition to duo shows being built around strong interaction and chemistry between the performers, as well as a solid script (comic or otherwise), some performers are now joining forces as a way to get more fannies in the seats. When there are so many shows and so much competition for the attention of the New York cabaret going subculture (mainly because generating audiences outside of this tiny universe is not one of the strong suits of many cabaret show promoters and organizations such as MAC), this strategy is totally understandable. But does it make for the kind of compelling duo show that will have a long shelf life, legs outside of New York, and possibly prance off with an award or two at the end of a season? Much of that depends on the choices. So a critique of the Sullivan/Harnar Sondheim set also provides an interesting opportunity to analyze the anatomy of a duo show and the choices that can make it work--or not.
KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar are highly respected, talented cabaret performers who have carved out extremely successful careers, both inside and outside the Apple. Sullivan has established herself as a distinctive "character" (one who never seems finished without wearing a hat); an entertainer with a retro-light opera voice who can delight on a range of song styles from Cole Porter to Kurt Weill. Harnar isn't a flamboyant power vocalist who oozes on-stage charisma, but he's a professional singer with an easy on-stage manner, a solid baritone-to-tenor voice, and some skill at light cabaret comedy. As they have displayed often in the past, both Sullivan and Harnar can easily carry shows on their own, although Sullivan has recently become the Grande Dame of the Duo Show, having performed in tandem over the last couple of years with Mark Nadler, Larry Woodard, and in a wonderful show with Karen Kohler. Sullivan and Harnar combining for a Sondheim-themed show seemed an excellent choice because as they sang early in a tune from Merrily We Roll Along, KT and Jeff are "Old Friends." Their singing styles are similar in that neither is going to dazzle an audience with belts and fermatas, but they know how to interpret lyrics, especially as intricate and intelligent as Stephen Sondheim phrases (See show highlights video below).
For those who live and breathe Sondheim (and they are legion), and who would probably spend countless hours by the radio if Sondheim was the only music Christine Pedi and Seth Rudetsky played on their Sirius XM shows, New York cabaret is definitely for you. Between variety shows such as Sondheim Unplugged at 54 Below and Mostly Sondheim at The Duplex, and the countless Sondheim tunes performed in solo, duo, or group cabaret shows, there is more Sondheim sung per capita in New York cabaret than anyplace else in the world. And while I've always greatly appreciated many of Sondheim's scores, and my respect and admiration for the master increased exponentially when I saw the superb recent HBO documentary, Six by Sondheim, I wouldn't call myself a fanatical Sondheim devotee. So I have to admit that when I first heard about Sullivan and Harnar's new effort my first thought was, "God, not another Sondheim cabaret show!" But I was naturally curious to see and hear what KT, Jeff, Director Sondra Lee, and the celebrated Musical Director Jon Weber--fresh off his own show triumph covering the history of piano jazz at the Metropolitan Room--would bring to such classic material.
Upon taking the stage, the performers were not exactly preparing for a a side-by-side Sondheim show. As they did throughout the set, Sullivan and Harnar sat at small tables on opposite ends, which was sort of a metaphor for a presentation where they were more apart than together. After opening with the show's title song and "Old Friends" from Merrily We Roll Along, KT announced the evening's festivities would be patter-free. "No patter?" Harnar playfully responded. "Not while I'm around, little lamb" (That's two . . . two . . . two Sondheim show references in one!) Turned out, the duo and their director Sondra Lee did keep the script to an absolute minimum, probably a good choice because, after all, what more, different, or new can be said about Sondheim in a cabaret show? And this way, the audience could hear all or parts of 26 songs, eight of which were from Follies (including two that were cut) and five from Company. What's the downside to a script-less show? The presentation was more of a Sondheim's Greatest Hits concert than a genuine cabaret duo show, and was built around solos book-ended with the obligatory duets to create faux chemistry between the performers. If you're going to present a Sondheim duo show, wouldn't it be a more interesting choice to build the set mostly around duets with just a few strong solos sprinkled in? Sullivan is much more a Mrs. Lovett than Harnar is a Sweeney Todd, but it might have been great fun to hear them tackle a show-stopping duet like "A Little Priest."
Another choice, I guess in deference to a consistent theme, was to exclude Sondheim lyrics-only songs, so unfortunately there was nothing from West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein) or Gypsy (music by Jule Styne), which are only two of the greatest musicals ever written. I can understand KT and Jeff not being the ideal Tony and Maria, and perhaps it wouldn't have been practical for Harnar to scoop up KT and swing her around the room for "All I Need Is the Girl" from Gypsy, but it might have been an adorable bit and added much to the duo's on-stage chemistry if KT had serenaded Jeff with Mama Rose's song "You'll Never Get Away From Me," especially since the chapeau-wearing Sullivan could have cheekily sung, "True, you can say, 'Here's your hat.' But a little thing like that couldn't stop me now."
I thought I'd drown myself in my martini when Harnar's first solo was "What More Do I Need?" from Sondheim's first musical, Saturday Night, a song I've heard in cabaret about 8,000 times. But hearing it sweetly sung by a guy for a change, and a slightly swinging arrangement from Jon Weber prevented me from choking on my olives. In fact, throughout the show, the duo took on some Sondheim classics originally written for the opposite gender, with Harnar delivering a medley of "Loving You" from Passion with "Losing My Mind" from Follies, "Send In the Clowns" from A Little Night Music, and "Could I Leave You," from Follies, while Sullivan sang a "Pretty Women/Johanna" medley from Sweeney Todd. This seemed far less of a deliberate gender-bending conceit for the overall show as opposed to just being both performer's personal preferences, a notion KT gave away before the Sweeney medley when she offered, "I've always wanted to sing these songs." Sullivan was stronger on her opposite gender songs, getting everything she could out of her upper register on "Johanna," while Harnar's take on "Losing My Mind" lacked the emotion necessary to put over that intense lyric. And his "Send In the Clowns" was only Sinatra-esque in that he delivered it as if he were sipping cocktails at a watering hole and telling the barkeep his woes. Having KT--a Glynis Johns-playing-Desiree Armfeldt-character if I've ever heard one--sing "Clowns" would not have been a clichéd choice.
With his understated, subtle, and typically supportive musical direction, Jon Weber was like a Georges Serat on piano, supplying just enough jazzy colors and impressionistic chords to give some familiar Sondheim phrases a bit more edge. But even Weber couldn't save Harnar on "That Old Piano Roll" (which was cut from Follies and should have been cut from this show), or on the opening night rendition of "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" from Follies, which Harnar curiously sang like Billie Holiday on acid. One of the better choices involved the creative team deciding for show two to switch out that mess with a more solid Harnar performance on "Everybody Says Don't" from Anyone Can Whistle. Jeff would later produce a lovely rendition of the title song from that 1964 musical, ending with a sweet falsetto on "Maybe if you whistle, whistle for me." Harnar's standout moment came a bit past mid-show when he absolutely nailed both the comic and poignant aspects of a terrified-about-marriage mash up of "The Little Things You Do Together" (from Company, 1970), "Marry Me A Little" (which was cut from Company), "I'm Calm" (from A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, 1962), and the frantically paced lyric of "Getting Married Today" (from Company).
As KT Sullivan once again displayed in this show, her talent kind of sneaks up on you. Just when you're not sure whether you should take her mannered and patrician presence and her light soprano seriously, she can bowl you over with her strong yet subtle acting/comedic skills and her intelligent interpretation of lyrics. In a past musical theater life, say the early 20th century, KT would have been a Faye Templeton/Vivienne Segal hybrid. She had so many delicious moments--especially in the second performance--she could have carried a Sondheim show solo. When she sang the line, "Hyphenated Harriet, the nouveau from New Rochelle" (from "Uptown, Downtown," a song cut from Follies), it was with a Mae West sensual sassiness. It was a very good choice to offer a group number like "Remember?" from A Little Night Music as a KT solo and few could utter the simple phrase, "Remember, darling?" more seductively. The sexually suggestive "The Madame's Song" (or "I'll Never Do Anything Twice"), from the 1976 film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, was a perfect comic song for Sullivan's unique combination of ladylike elegance spiced with a dash of bawdiness. And her touching, introspective take on the ballad, "In Buddy's Eyes" from Follies was positively tear inducing.
For both performers, the news that the legendary Elaine Stritch died the day after their second show must have seemed a bit surreal. Stritch was one of the leading interpreters of Sondheim songs so I'm betting there wasn't a dry eye in the Beechman during the July 23 show when KT and Jeff jauntily performed a duet on "The Ladies Who Lunch," from Company. There was a knowing glint in Harnar's eye when he looked straight at KT and sang the line, "Does anyone still where a hat?" To which a progressively tipsy-acting Sullivan humorously milked her response, "I'llllllll . . . drink to that!" And there couldn't have been a better choice for the finale duet than the Stritch standard, "I'm Still Here." The show's flaws notwithstanding, it's a shame that the Broadway icon isn't still here to enjoy this delightfully entertaining Sondheim songbook tribute. And I'll drink to that.
Photo of Sullivan, Harnar and Weber by Russ Weatherford