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Jillian Laurain's 'Broadway' and Stacy Sullivan's Peggy Lee Tribute Give Audiences Saturday Night 'Fever'

Cabaret Reviews by Stephen Hanks

Even though for me cabaret reviewing is a labor of love and not one for profit (at least for now), occasionally there can be a hidden perk in being afforded the critic's comp, i.e., the ability to enjoy a special occasion more ostentatiously even though you're on a budget. For example, last September my wife and I were able to celebrate our anniversary night with a cabaret show doubleheader at 54 Below, first with the amazing Ann Hampton Callaway's Double BroadwayWorld Award-Winning (and MAC-nominated) Streisand Songbook, and later with the Manhattan Transfer's awesome Janis Siegel. Of course, one is not always going to luck out and catch a great singer performing on a big personal day, let alone two on the same night. But the cabaret gods must be smiling on this reviewer because this past Saturday evening my wife and I celebrated her birthday with an intimate dinner in between a couple of totally engaging shows from two lovely ladies of cabaret; the beautiful Jillian Laurain (above left) paying homage to classic Broadway show tunes at the Metropolitan Room, and the beguiling Stacy Sullivan (above right) in her MAC and BroadwayWorld.com Award-nominated tribute to Peggy Lee, "It's a Good Day," at the Cafe Carlyle. For me and the Birthday Girl, it was definitely a good night.

Two years ago, Jillian Laurain's sublime Barbra Streisand tribute show at the Laurie Beechman would have been the first of three Streisand extravaganzas in the past two years to be MAC-nomination caliber (along with Callaway's and Tanya Moberly's this year) had Laurain run more than two shows. Her new one-shot (so far anyway), My Broadway: 100 Years of the Great White Way, featured a set of songs right in the former opera singer's still-powerful vocal wheelhouse. As a vocal technician herself (she works with students in a studio in her Manhattan apartment), Laurain well knows how to get the most out of her instrument. Her numbers were infused with excellent arrangements she handed off to Musical Director (and freshly-minted Bistro Award Winner for "Ongoing Musical Excellence") Barry Levitt (with Laurain below), who is simpatico with Laurain's musicality and temperament the way a veteran catcher is with a talented but fragile pitcher. Levitt didn't help Laurain throw the cabaret equivalent of a no-hitter, but he guided her into pitching a tantalizing complete-game musical victory that wowed the Metropolitan Room audience from the opening notes.

To the strains of "One" from A Chorus Line, the lovely Laurain entered wearing a shimmering black sequence-laden jacket over the same style dress and then managed to give Stephen Sondheim's "Broadway Baby," enough pizzazz that it didn't feel like a pedestrian opener. From that point on, Laurain and Levitt (along with Tom Hubbard on bass, Ed Ornowski on drums and Rob Thomas on violin) offered a chronological mini-history of the Broadway Musical, choosing numbers that were terrific fits for Laurain's flowery mezzo-soprano. After another pleasant warm-up-the-room song with "Where's That Rainbow" (from the 1926 Rodgers & Hart show Peggy Ann), Laurain attained her first of many "bravas!" of the night with a stirring rendition of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine" from Show Boat (Thomas' violin was a nice touch in this arrangement) and a soaringly operatic "My Man's Gone Now," from Porgy & Bess. "I've always wanted to conduct you in an opera," the Maestro Levitt told his Diva Laurain. "Tonight may be the night." Quicker than you can say "Johnny One Note," Laurain was singing the song from 1937s Babes in Arms as an opera aria. On "Speak Low" from Kurt Weill's 1944 One Touch of Venus, she again displayed her nightingale-like sound that has a soothing quality with just enough vibrato to keep you paying attention. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)

Laurain definitely has a flair for sweeping drama in her delivery of Broadway show tunes and offered no better example then on the next high point of the set, a combination of "So In Love" from Cole Porter's 1948 Kiss Me Kate and Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Bali Ha'i" from the following year's South Pacific. On the latter, Laurain so wonderfully captured the wistful ballad with her cinematic soprano she would make an ideal Jewish "Bloody Mary" (heavy on the horseradish) if the Yiddish Theater ever decides to mount their version of the classic. The rest of the set was consistently solid and included a haunting Laurain on a medley of Leonard Bernstein's "One Hand, One Heart"/"Somewhere" from West Side Story, an obligatory but beautiful homage to Streisand on "The Music That Makes Me Dance" from 1964's Funny Girl, and an arrangement of Kander & Ebb's "All That Jazz" from Chicago that started as a sensual acapella, sashayed mid-song into a cool band riff, and slowly built to the fun "That Jazz!" button.

At first blush, speaking the first two stanzas of "Music of the Night" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera seemed an odd decision for Laurain's finale, but it was transformed into an inspired choice when the singer quickly transitioned into a number from another sympathetically grotesque character, Norma Desmond, on "With One Look" from Webber's Sunset Boulevard. As Laurain sensually donned a pair of black satin gloves with feathery white wrist cuffs, her piercing gaze cut through the audience as she delivered lyrics that could have been a message about her future intentions as a cabaret performer.

With one look, I'll ignite a blaze
I'll return to my glory days
They'll say
Norma's back at last

This time I'm staying
I'm staying for good, I'll be back
Where I was born to be
With one look, I'll be me

Jillian Laurain is ready for her cabaret close-up. Another show or two, Mr. DeMille?

It's difficult to offer a more glowing review of the glowing Stacy Sullivan than I did back in October when her multiple BroadwayWorld and MAC-Award nominated show It's A Good Day: A Tribute to Miss Peggy Lee played it's run at the Metropolitan Room (http://bit.ly/YamP20). But somehow Sullivan and her band compadres, Musical Director Jon Weber and bass man Steve Doyle (a recent BroadwayWorld Award-winner for "Male Debut Show"), pulled off an even tighter, more polished set during a brief two-night run last Friday and Saturday at Cafe Carlyle, with both shows at 10:45. Given that she also staged 11:30pm shows at the Met Room, Sullivan is accomplishing the near impossible--mesmerizing audiences at a time when they have every right to be nodding off after a long New York day and evening.

But attention must be paid when you're listening to a singer like Sullivan, who is exuding more confidence with each gusty performance, and who is making the performer to whom she is paying tribute a part of her soul. The willowy, vivacious, and down-to-earth Oklahoma native emits an engaging and accessible stage presence, possesses a sweet, rich, and breathy vocal sound, and is clearly enjoying keeping Peggy Lee's scorching flame alive for both the audiences that remember the legendary singer, and for those who should be made aware of Lee's unique and underrated talent as a songwriter. In addition to the songs she consistently nailed in the Met Room run, Sullivan raised her game at the Carlyle on the Adler and Ross song "Hey There," from The Pajama Game, setting it up with a cute anecdote about how while on stage, Lee would often clasp her hands nevously behind her back and awkwardly look off to the wings for moral support from a fellow singer like a Frank Sinatra. Sullivan then adorably mimicked those moves during the song. Her rendition of "Johnny Guitar," Lee's stirring tribute to her alcoholic husband Dave Barbour, who died at just 53, was even more haunting when embellished with the Carlyle acoustics. By the time she got to her finale, the lullaby-like ballad "Angels on Your Pillow," I had Stacy Sullivan "Fever" all over again and was rewarded by the Birthday Girl (I'm not saying how) for providing a very entertaining evening.

Given that Sullivan has already played this show in London and will perform it in Arkansas this Saturday night (can you get more weirdly international than that?), it's clear this show has serious legs and that Sullivan will be channelling Miss Peggy Lee for a long time to come. Luckily for New Yorkers, Sullivan will be back at the Cafe Carlyle with her passionate, poignant and pitch-perfect tribute show (a MAC-Award "Show of the Year" nominee, as well as Sullivan herself for "Best Female Vocalist") on May 2, 3, and 4, of course all three at the bewitching time of 10:45, the start time of the Carlyle's new late night "Second Act" series. And believe me, you won't have to take an afternoon nap to stay awake for it. -END-


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From This Author Stephen Hanks