BWW Review: Sue Matsuki HOW'S THAT FOR OPENERS? Is Cause For Celebration at Don't Tell Mama
Thirty-three years to the day. That's what September 16, 2019, was - thirty-three years since Sue Matsuki stepped onto the stage at Don't Tell Mama to audition for Sidney Myer. Nervous, scared, excited, Ms. Matsuki gave it the old college try; and though it wasn't her best audition, Sidney saw something in her and decided to give her a shot, something Sidney has been known to do over the years, and Sue Matsuki had a place to sing. Three plus decades later, the elegant Ms. Matsuki stepped, once more, onto the stage that she has occupied many times, and opened her mouth to sing to a room she has called home, to a group of people she calls family.
The cabaret community being such a supportive one, The Original Room at Don't Tell Mama was filled with friendly faces one sees at many a cabaret event. Richard Skipper sat with Jay Rogers, Bobbie Horowitz was beside Meg Flather, Leanne Borghesi, Marni Klar, Deb Berman, Deborah Stone. All these artists gathered in one place to support an artist whose work they respect and whose friendship they cherish, and when the lights came up on Sue Matsuki, elegantly attired in flowing black chiffon with beaded accents, sparkling silver jewelry at the throat and ears, the ovation was tumultuous. This Anniversary Party would be one to remember.
The show "How's That For Openers" features the MAC award-winning Sue Matsuki singing 16 songs that, over the years, have been her opening numbers for her various shows. The setlist is a magnificent one and Matsuki had ample opportunities to display why she has had such longevity in the business. Sharing the stage with one of the greatest three-piece combos likely to be seen on a nightclub stage, Sue was in her element. Her longtime musical director, Gregory Toroian, at the piano and at her side, Sue Matsuki could rest assured she was in good hands, and often made one of the classiest moves a singer can make: at some point in almost every song, she stepped aside to allow Toroian, bass play David Finck, and Ron Tierno (a master percussionist) opportunities to shine, clearly a wise choice because when a singer has this kind of talent on stage with them, showcasing their talents only enhances the evening. The musicianship on display was unparalleled and the euphoric, peaceful expression on Matsuki's face was proof positive that this is one of the places where happiness lives for her.
For Ms. Matsuki's part, her contribution to the festivities was front and center, right where it, like she, belongs. An incredibly likable, almost unbearably charming woman, Sue knows not how to hide who she is, and though dressed in chiffon and diamonds, she was down to earth in her Doc Martens (oh yes, I was close enough to see her footwear peeking out from under her skirt - and everyone who wears a floor-length skirt should follow Sue's lead) and in her dialogue, sharing all the parts of herself with an audience who could not get enough. Jockeying back and forth between upbeat numbers like "This Could Be The Start of Something Big" to lulling melodies like "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars", Matsuki demonstrated a range of vocal styles, proving that she can do the ballads and the belts, the swing and the sweet. Several times during the evening her jazz roots were showing, and these are roots that need no touching up - her renditions of "A Small Day Tomorrow" and "Shaking the Blues Away" were simply breathtaking. And in between the insanely well-arranged musical, numbers, Sue shared stories about her life, mostly about her life with her husband and their travel adventures, but also about her family's connections to Harley Davidson motorcycles, and about a bruise she has somewhere on her body, but she isn't telling where (no spoilers, kids, you have to see the show to know). It was a fun and festive evening worthy of Matsuki's tenure, moved smoothly along by expert nightclub director Lina Koutrakos, and the power couple that is Koutrakos and Matsuki is lucky because, in lesser hands, it could have gone off the rails because of one structural risk they took.
An evening of singing opening numbers culled together from three decades of shows is an interesting idea on paper; but when the finished production is on its feet, there is a potential lack of a musical arc. If you turned on the Carly Simon record No Secrets and listened to it from first song to last song, you would hear the story Ms. Simon created for you. The same can be said of Carole King's Tapestry, Barbra Streisand's My Name Is Barbra and many other albums. If you listen to the compilation records of those artists' greatest hits, you don't have a story, you have a box of candy - it is sweet but it is incohesive. There is a reason for the structure of a cabaret show. There's a reason your first song is your first song, there is a reason you pick a particular number to be your third number - the reasons are the musical story on which you wish to take your audience. That story did not really exist in the show "How's That For Openers?"
That did not matter.
This was a different story.
This was the story of a long artistic life, well-lived, oft observed, and worthy of note. It is the story of the stamina, the fortitude, the tenacity of the artist. It is the story of artistic survival in a world where flowers wilt from lack of nourishment. The musical arc usually (hopefully) present in a cabaret show was not a required element last night.
It is greatly beneficial that Sue Matsuki is the artist that she is and that Lina Koutrakos saw and recognized that. It is lucky for her audience that Sue Matsuki is a pro, because she provided enough story inside of each tune, a new story with each melody, and then she tied them all together with the stories of her life, thus bringing her audience to her, to know her, to know her artistry, to know her heart. And at the end of the day, that is what a cabaret singer wants to give to their audience: their heart.
And when it comes to heart, Sue Matsuki got lucky, because the only thing about her that is bigger than her talent is her heart.
Photos by Stephen Mosher