BWW Review: KT Sullivan's 1919: IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR Entertains at Birdland Theater
KT Sullivan seemed to run to the stage, wearing a shimmering black dress with an asymmetrical hem, an intricate black headpiece, and wielding a black feathered boa: a vision in all black. The crowd cheered wildly, this room of cabaret fans just waiting for an entertaining show - which Sullivan, and her cast of talented singers and performers, delivered handily.
The setting was Birdland's downstairs theater, with robin's egg-blue walls decorated with artsy, blurred shots of city traffic. There is a rich velvet curtain at the back of the stage; it's black, but the stage lights stain it deep red. For nearly two hours, Sullivan and her cast, aided by the setting, transported the audience into another time, performing works by artists born in 1919 and mainly produced throughout that century.
This is the 12th year Sullivan has held a celebration of artists born in a 20th century year, 100 years after their birth; many of the songs were originally composed by Ervin Drake, though the show also hosted tributes to Liberace, Nat King Cole, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. It was a show built to be superbly entertaining. At times, it felt like getting concert whiplash, such as when Karen Oberlin performed "Good Morning Heartache" right after Eugene Ebner's medley in honor of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." "I'm here to bring the mood way, way down," Oberlin said before launching into the slow, emotional song - which she immediately followed with a rendition of "Baby it's Cold Outside" that once again had the audience in stitches.
A standout performance of the night was Allora Leonard, 15-year-old country-and-cabaret singer who performed "Honky Tonk." Her voice is rich and deep and absolutely delightful to listen to. She was followed immediately by another singer performing tributes to country and folk greats born in 1919, Tim Sullivan, who sang several of Pete Seeger's works, including "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which he invited the audience to participate in.
Although the show was billed to her, KT Sullivan herself spent much of the night cheering on the rest of the cast from the side of the stage, introducing everyone briefly and occasionally to great delight. About halfway through the show, she introduced a performer simply as one of the greats: Liberace himself. Except, of course, it wasn't Liberace himself; it was David Maiocco, wearing a sequined suit ensemble and flashy rings on almost every finger. He enraptured the house in character, holding the audience's attention through multiple songs and wandering the stage, speaking to those in the front row - mostly about rings, though also teasing the men and complimenting the women.
And then there was Natalie Douglas.
Given her own tribute show to Nat King Cole, it is natural that she was tapped to perform in honor of the legendary singer (and first African-American man to have his own TV show, she shared) for this show. As she gave a short intro to the artist's work, Douglas said that Cole didn't just make people hear songs: "He makes you feel them." Within seconds of launching into the beginning bars of "Unforgettable," it became clear she has this trait herself. Listening to Douglas sing, and especially listening to her sing Cole's words, is reminiscent of flying through clouds; a moment in the night that felt transportive, magical.
The show was eclectic, boasting a wide variety of singers, ranging from those whose voices soared to those whose music lends itself more to conversational singing, and even the range of emotions elicited was wide. It was also the kind of show that makes you realize just how knowledgeable Sullivan and the music director, Jon Weber, are when it comes to music and these legendary artists. Their vast wealth of knowledge is in itself a feat, but so was their ability to bring together the multitudinous talented performers and create one mostly cohesive show, which left the audience cheering their delight.
Photo credit: Stacy Sullivan