Stacy Sullivan Channels Peggy Lee in Triumphant Tribute Show at Metropolitan Room
Cabaret Review by Stephen Hanks
Most pop music and musical theater buffs carry around a mental list of iconic singer/entertainers they wish they'd heard LIVE before they died. My group of such immortals includes Al Jolson, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and Elvis. Now I'm adding Peggy Lee to that fantasy bucket list and for that I can thank Stacy Sullivan.
Of course, I'd heard Peggy Lee sing her classic songs a zillion times over the years through old records, TV documentaries and You Tube videos, but it wasn't until I attended the October 17 opening night of Sullivan's new cabaret effort, It's a Good Day: A Tribute to Miss Peggy Lee, the first of a six-show run through next February at the Metropolitan Room (see upcoming show dates at end of this piece), that I felt a deeper affinity for the peerless Peggy. It's not that Sullivan pulled off the kind of down-pat vocal impersonation that made you feel you were actually listening to Miss Lee (and frankly, that seemed far from Stacy's goal). It's that Sullivan so adroitly articulated and emotionally inhabited the songs-and Lee's life story-through the astute arrangements and the well-crafted script, that it was almost impossible not to come away with a new appreciation for one of America's greatest jazz/blues/pop singers; one who might be considered the female Sinatra.
I'm sure I wasn't alone in doing a double take when Sullivan took the Met Room stage with her skin luminescent, her honey blonde hair flowing freely to her shoulders, and her smile so radiant that she could pass for Peggy's sister. In fact, the illustrated portrait on her media kit cover looks like the result of one of those computerized experiments in morphing faces. (Lee's family must feel the connection, as they invitEd Sullivan to sing at last May's opening of the Peggy Lee Museum in Lee's birthplace of North Dakota.) But Sullivan wasn't going to be able to get over on the similarities in looks alone. This set was an 11:30 pm spot and much of the supportive but discerning audience had just experienced a three-hour opening night show of the Cabaret Convention further uptown at Rose Theatre in Lincoln Center, so they would likely be in no mood for simply average from Sullivan in the singing department.
No worries as this show turned out to be one of those serendiptous fits of a singer to a subject and the songs. On her opening night, Sullivan was as compelling as a Peggy Lee lyric. She launched the set with the smooth, jazzy "I Love Being Here With You." (If you've never seen the You Tube video of Lee singing this song with Judy Garland on the latter's classic TV variety show, you must check it out.) She then began what she called her "Down in the Valley Medley" with the first biographical riff (like Lee, Sullivan is the 7th of 8th children) on Lee's difficult childhood (i.e. an alcoholic father and abusive step-mother) and stormy life (her marriage to guitarist and frequent co-writer Dave Barbour, who also suffered from alcoholism). Sullivan didn't offer the usual recitation of Wikipedia entries that have become the norm in tributes shows and kept these verbal interludes brief enough to keep the show's musical flow humming along. The medley's highlight was a take on "I Got Rhythm" that went from a plaintive wail of youthful longing to a sophisticated and jazzy uptempo groove.
Sullivan is comfortable and confident in her sweet alto to mezzo soprano range and with the support of great arrangements from musical director/pianist Jon Weber (who this night had transitioned from the 1960s-'70s keyboard shaman he was earlier playing for Lauren Fox at the Cab Convention into a buttoned-down piano maestro for Sullivan's show) and the superb Steve Doyle on bass, she never pushed past her limits. She was breathy, smokey, and sensual on songs like "I Don't Know Enough About You" (music by Barbour), Rodgers and Hart's "Nobody's Heart," "Where Did They Go" (Harry Lloyd/Gloria Sklerov), and a mash up of "That Old Black Magic" with "Lover," often showing that she can get as much out of whispering a musical phrase as many singers can get out of a belt. When Sullivan needed to power up her vocal, like on the bluesy and bouncy "You Was Right, Baby," she added just the right mix of volume with sexy sass. (Please click on Page Two below to continue.)
Some of Weber's best arrangements for Sullivan were a sweet, languid, pseudo-Latin beat on "Till There Was You," a stylistic mash up within one song when Sullivan went from musical theater light to jazzy on "Baubles, Bangles and Beads," a transition from slow and sexy to uptempo and back again on "Cheek to Cheek" (featuring Doyle on bass), and a taut, heart-wrenching rendition of "Johnny Guitar," the tribute song for Barbour that Lee wrote with composer Victor Young two years after her divorce from Barbour in 1954.
But Sullivan's set list was almost as intriguing for the Lee classics she didn't include in the show as for the ones she did. Some might think it a major oversight not singing "Fever," "Black Coffee," or "Is That All There Is?" in a Peggy Lee tribute show, but performing songs that really can't be embellished or improved upon-especially given the nearly flawless way Lee sang them-can lead you down the road of mimicry and comparisons and Sullivan made a good choice not taking that kind of nostalgic trip. Instead she offered up a treasure like the poignant ballad "The Folks Back Home," the song Lee wrote in 1980 about and for people of North Dakota (and which Stacy has recorded with permission of the Lee family and Lee's co-writer, Paul Horner).
Sullivan's penultimate number, "It's a Good Day" (another classic co-written with Barbour), was the kind of upbeat song that was ideally placed given that she delivered it at about 12:45 in the morning after a long night of joyous cabaret. But "Angels on Your Pillow," Lee's lovely ballad written in 1983, was a perfect encore and Sullivan vocally caressed it softly and subtly, as if she was a Peggy Lee angel singing her audience happily off to sleep. It was definitely a fitting end to a sublime show and a very good day.
Stacy Sullivan will be performing "It's a Good Day: A Tribute to Miss Peggy Lee" at the Metropolitan Room (34 W. 22nd St, between 5th and 6th Ave.) on Sat. Nov. 10 (11:30 pm), Sat. Dec. 8 (11:30 pm), Mon. Jan. 28, 2013 (7 pm) and Sat. Feb. 23, 2013 (7 pm).
Photos by Stephen Sorokoff