BWW Reviews: In Entertaining Individual Shows, Anna Marie Sell and Kim Sutton Explore the Military Life Through Music
I'll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree
Christmas Eve will find you
Where the love light gleams
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
--Music by Walter Kent, Lyrics by Kim Gannon, Buck Ram, 1943
"I'll Be Home for Christmas" is a simple song that touched the hearts of Americans (both soldiers and civilians) during World War II. In fact, it became the most requested song at Christmas USO shows. Little wonder the month of December has always been an emotional time of the year, especially for our military families; a period to deeply reflect on family and country. Over the past few months in New York cabaret, a few performers have offered up musical testimony on wars, patriotism, and US military veterans. In their excellent Veterans Day duo show, Revolution, Dawn Derow and Kathleen France both paid tribute to veterans and provided commentary on the vagaries of American wars. Recently, two singers fairly new to the cabaret scene staged shows saluting the brave men and women who serve our country now and in the past.Anna Marie Sell, Goodnight Soldier: Songs of the Second World War, Stage 72, December 7, 2014
With her wholesome, girl-next-door good looks, wearing a deep purple peplum forties style dress, open toed shoes, classic pearls, and pin-up curls, Anna Marie Sell takes the Stage 72 spotlight (on Pearl Harbor Day, no less) to shine in her debut act Goodnight Soldier: Songs of the Second World War. Showcasing her impressive soprano chops, Sell swings with a jumpin' Johnny Mercer 1943 hit "G.I. Jive" followed by Moe Jaffe's "Bell Bottom Trousers" (12 weeks on the Your Hit Parade radio show), then melts your heart with her angelic rendition of the beautiful "Goodnight Soldier" (Harry Johnson). It's only three songs into the show and the audience is already immersed in the nostalgia of the war fought by "The Greatest Generation."
Sell tells us that the sheet music she selected for this show were among rare gems that her grandmother had collected during those turbulent war years. This might explain the "faithful-girl-back-home" point of view expressed in so much of this music and that is sung with just the right amount of pathos, as in her take on "I Wish I Could Hide Inside This Letter' (Tobias/Simon). On "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" (Loesser/Schwartz), Sell shows terrific comic timing, and both her poignant rendition of "I'll Walk Alone" (the popular 1944 Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne iconic hit of the war introduced by Dinah Shore in the film Follow the Boys) and her closing number, "It's Been a Long, Long Time" (another Cahn/Styne hit) were absolutely captivating. In fact, Sell interprets Sammy Cahn's music so well that an entire show dedicated to the master lyricist might be a great follow-up to this act. As a good deal of her bio indicates Sell's experience in musical theatre, she instinctually played (perhaps a bit too much) to the back wall of the theatre rather than more intimately to the audience. However, her most successful song of the evening was where she simply sat on the front of the stage and sang "Saturday Night" (yet another Cahn/Styne hit), which might suggest this act would absolutely fly in a smaller, more intimate room, especially given Sell's ability to so convincingly tell a story.
Musical Director and pianist Bill Zeffiro offers up tight arrangements suggestive of the era, especially a fun patriotic "Military Medley" (mostly written by military men) of "Anchors Away" (Captain Alfred H. Miles, U.S.N., and Charles Zimmerman), "Semper Paratus: Always Ready" (Captain Francis Van Boskerck), "Sky Anchors: The Naval Aviation Song" (Fred Waring), and "The Army Air Corps" (Captain Robert Crawford). Also a hit with the audience was Zeffiro's and show director Miles Phillips' clever "Frontline Medley" including "The U.S.A. by Day and the R.A.F. by Night" (Lock/Musel), "What Do You Do in the Infantry" (Frank Loesser), "In My Arms" (Loesser/Grouya), "Hot Time in the Town of Berlin" (Sgt. Joe Bushkin/Pvt. John DeVries), and a bouncy "Vic'try Polka" (Cahn/Styne), where Zeffiro sang a fun campy backup to Sell's wholesome jive-gyrating swing.
This act is a wonderfully intimate musical trip down WWII memory lane as evidenced by the large number of adoring senior citizens in the audience. Unfortunately, due to the club's poor scheduling, the act went up some 40 minutes late forcing the audience to wait outside in an unheated lobby for over 45 minutes. To her credit, Sell soared over a grumbling crowd, and the fact that this act was so beautifully directed by multi-award winner Miles Phillips helped the hour to fly by and all was forgiven.
Kim Sutton, Anchors Away, Don't Tell Mama, December 14, 2014
She's big. She's bold. She's blond. She's Navy, boys, Navy! As Kim Sutton strutted to the stage this past Sunday amidst the whistles and cheers of a packed house at Don't Tell Mama, you couldn't help but feel you were on your first shore leave ready for a real good time. Anchors Away is Sutton's autobiographical journey as a pretty, young, high school graduate from Sciota, Pennsylvania who joins the Navy at the ripe old age of 17. Sutton appropriately begins roll call with a mash-up of "The Star Spangled Banner" (Francis Scott Key), and "Anchors Away" (Charles Zimmerman). Acing the military entrance exams in Sciota High with the exuberance of her youth, Sutton breaks into a triumphant "In the Navy" (Morali/Belolo/Willis) marching in comic military time to the Village People hit with mirror ball spinning to the utter delight of the audience.
Sutton then tells us she has been accepted into the prestigious "Navel Nuclear Power Program," so it's time to shove off to boot camp with "Come Sail Away" (Dennis DeYoung). But once having landed, the Navy tells her there's been a big mistake, honey. Women can't serve duty in the Navel Nuclear Power Program, but they've found a place to squeeze her into the "Navel Hospital Corps School." Being a good little trooper she agrees, and enters boot camp with a mash-up of Irving Berlin's "Reveille" and "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." At this point in the show, an audience member arrives late, and is greeted by Sutton who teasingly ad libs "Glad you could make it. We'll catch you up later, but right now I'm in boot camp." The audience roars.
Boot camp in Orlando, Florida was no picnic as all her commanding officers tested her beyond her limits. Being the bold, brassy, upstart she is, Sutton takes it all in stride with Charlie Small's "Ease on Down the Road," and reports that maybe it's not such a bad thing she got booted out of the Nuclear Power Program as she discovers in maneuvers she easily gets seasick. But it's not all fun and war games in boot camp. As the Navy Corps drives home their mantra "Honor, Courage, Service" and threatens her with an early dismissal because she "can't cut it," Sutton brilliantly reveals in song the emotional depth of a young girl experiencing a sense of blind fearlessness as she heads toward the unknown, singing "Take Me To The Pilot" (Elton John/Bernie Taupin), and then vocally peaks with "This Is It" (Kenny Loggins/Michael McDonald). Unable to break her, Sutton's commanding officers indeed graduate her, giving her the nickname "Lips," as in: "Lips, wipe that goddam smile off your face." "Yes, Sir!" The audience goes wild.
Transferred to serve duty at Great Lakes Navel Hospital in Great Lakes, Illinois, the mischievous Sutton (hoping to coax her "military gal pals" into a local tattoo parlor while on "shore leave") displays strong vocal prowess by belting out a rollicking crowd pleaser "Heartache Tonight" (Henley/Frey/Seger/Souther), followed by "Everybody Needs a Friend" (Seth MacFarlane). We see the leader emerge in Sutton now asserting her sense of "empowerment with a purpose," singing "King of Anything" (Sara Bareilles).
One of Sutton's duties was to take HIV tests for all service personal, and, sadly, had to administer the news that one of her best friends tested positive during a time when the military and the government turned their ugly political heads. A poignant highlight of the evening was Sutton's beautifully sung, heart wrenching "I'll Be Over You" (Lukather, Goodrum), where she tearfully honors her fallen hero in song. Enraged by the government and military's negligence during the 1980's AIDS epidemic, Sutton points an accusatory finger (risking actual court martial) with Stevie Wonder's powerful "You Haven't Done Nothing." Despite the fact she directly disobeyed orders when organizing a committee to educate the military forces about AIDS, Sutton is honorably discharged after six years of active duty, and expresses her (and the audience's) jubilation in "Let It Go" (Andersen/Lopez) from Frozen.
Telling Sutton's story was an ambitious undertaking requiring the most talented of troops. Musical Director and pianist Gregory Toroian greatly contributed to the success of this show with his superb arrangements, powerful accompaniment, and bringing aboard excellent musicians such as Saadi Zain on bass and David Silliman on drums. Adam DeCarlo on lights and sound added to the military flair and fun of this unique show. As director, Helen Baldassare successfully brought out the best of Sutton by astutely having her reveal not just the singer and performer, but also by revealing a fascinating glimpse of the life of a woman warrior in the military.
Photo of Anna Marie Sell by Russ Weatherford