Camille Photo Credit Erin Baiano




by Marilyn Lester

When an artist issues a warning at the top of a show: “If this is you’re first time seeing me, well then, good luck,” it helps to understand Irish wit. Camille O’Sullivan possesses plenty of that. She also offers a unique ultra-theatrical blitzkrieg of music, which is a mixed bag of Weill, Bowie, Waits and other songwriters interested in conveying a strong narrative. That’s her point and she states it clearly up front: “it’s about the story,” she says. O’Sullivan is not only a singer, but an actor – and also a modern-day vaudevillian.


What transpires in 90 minutes of show time is unbridled energy and a rollercoaster of theatrics, story-telling and song. The first of the lot was Nick Cave’s “God Is in the House,” intimately delivered with O’Sullivan sitting on the edge of the small stage. The natural intimacy of the Irish Arts Center’s space heightens the O’Sullivan effect: she and the musicians are in your face, like it or not. Fortunately, there’s a lot to like. From the enticing relative lull of the first number, O’Sullivan catapulted all concerned into the evening with a hard-driving, full-force “Revelator” (Gillian Welch), sealing a very genuine connection with her audience.

Camille O Sullivan live by Paulo Jorge Magalhães - Copy

As to the theatrics, there’s a strong indication of it from the outset. The stage is dark, smoky; four smart frocks hang from the flies. A table with an illuminated rabbit sits downstage left. A soundtrack plays odd bits of music and sound effects: a child’s voice, a cat meowing, a car in the distance. During the performance, it seems anything can happen. O’Sullivan sips wine, fusses with her hair endlessly (note to artist: please procure a bobby pin), stands up, sits down, lies down, and does a slow striptease between numbers (ending up in a black chemise). She also craftily changes shoes to Kirsty MacColl’s wryly humorous “In These Shoes.”


All of O’Sullivan’s arrangements (with Feargal Murray) are original; they flow from her own uniqueness. She can’t help but be different – it’s apparent that this comes with the territory of O’Sullivan, who actually came late to a singing career. She’s an architect by trade who, about a dozen years ago, finally gave in to her avocation and passion for a life on the stage. Her voice is an untrained natural instrument, and much like Ethel Merman, O Sullivan just has a knack for putting the material across in her own special way. Architecturally, she’s like a Frank Geary building come to life. When she sings Jacque Brel’s “Amsterdam,” accapella, there’s no mistaking her singularity and the total commitment she has to her work.

Camille OSullivan at Irish Arts Center_Photo Credit Erin Baiano

The voice itself is burnished, not so much smoky as evocative of a top shelf bourbon. There are never any fair comparisons, but descriptively her voice is hard-driving like Grace Slick’s, raw like Janis Joplin’s and sensuous like Bebel Gilberto’s. The result is pure O’Sullivan. When she sings Tom Wait’s “When All the World Is Green,” O’Sullivan is really feeling the story. She has a deep appreciation of Waits, choosing another of his songs for her set, the dark “God’s Away on Business.” Like Waits, O’Sullivan’s approach to the music is often dark. It’s also varied in style, such as the gutsy and bluesy “Hurt,” originally written and performed by Nine Inch Nails. O’Sullivan’s repertoire is well-considered; she’s an intelligent performer, making smart choices which suit her style and personality.


There are props aplenty throughout O’Sullivan’s performance – an amusing mirror ball hat, chimes, costume pieces, the rabbit – and much expressive movement around the stage. By the end of the set it’s amazing she’s still standing at all, yet the last song, David Bowie’s “Five Years,” sung without let-up, was followed by an encore of Nick Cave’s relatively gentle “Ship Song.” This number she sang unplugged (without the dynamic mic and boost her purer voice is actually kind of sweet and pleasant), moving into the audience to conduct a gentle but animated sing-a-long. Underlying all the music is a rock n’ roll sensibility arranged by O’Sullivan’s talented long-time music director and pianist, Feargal Murray. Drums were manned with workman-like fervor by Dan Weiner. Andrew Zinsmeister provided deft and agile guitar accompaniment. Contributing to the magic and madness were production designer Mac Smith, sound engineer John Murray, and stage manager Jessica Edwards.


Camille O’Sullivan Encore, April 6-9, 13-16 at 8 pm
Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st Street, 866-811-4111,

Photos: Erin Balano