by Alix Cohen
In the 1950s, lyric soprano Barbara Cook made a splash with ingénue roles in successive musicals. Work became less frequent in the 60s, and by the 70s the artist was struggling with obesity and alcoholism. Composer/arranger Wally Harper became her collaborator in 1973 tailoring arrangements with finesse and skill. “He sort of reinvented her.” (KT Sullivan) At a subsequent Carnegie Hall concert, audience that arrived out of respect left, Sullivan notes, as fans. The extraordinarily symbiotic relationship continued until Harper’s death in 2004.
A brief overture by Jon Weber paves the way for Sullivan’s tandem “Sing a Song with Me” Wally Harper/Paul Zakrzweaki)/”Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (Irving Berlin.) The vocalist’s well honed trill is in full flush. You might say the intro epitomizes both women. Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart’s “Wait Till You see Him” follows, loosely referring to the kismet meeting of honorees. Each lyric builds to a swell, then exhales.
“So now I’ll tell you how Barbara Cook entered my life.” Sullivan was an LA based actress in 1971 when it was suggested she try a solo act. “I thought all cabaret artists had low voices- Julie London, Julie Wilson…” The impression might’ve seemed valid. One can imagine how different early efforts seemed at a time when club chanteuses were of an ilk.
Booked to sing at a women’s event she describes with terrific humor, the newly minted cabaret singer was faced with a room of cat calls and whistles until someone called out, “She sounds like Barbara Cook” which oddly quieted the crowd. “If you can’t beat ‘m, join ‘m.” Sullivan’s first review in the LA Daily News declared she had great potential, but sings too many Barbara Cook songs. Comparison seemed inescapable. The connection is mined with skill creating a vertebrae for the show.
“Her Face” (Bob Merrill – Carnival) salutes Cook with tender inflection. A lovely, rarely heard rendition of “Marianne,” ushered in with music box piano, finds Sullivan transparently wistful. Moving to the edge of the stage, she leans in to us- sharing. (Jerry Herman –Grand Tour -Harper was Musical Director.)
The actress blooms in full with “Will He Like Me?” (Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick – She Loves Me.) Youthful anticipation pervades. Sullivan is palpably vulnerable and- hesitant. When I am in my room alone and I write…she sways, one hand on the piano….How I hope that his eyes and ears/won’t misinform him…she sings, laying the latter like a blanket. One can almost hear “please?”
Harper’s arrangements are extraordinary. An entire evening of his originality is something of a revelation. Music often holds hands with lyrics rather than parroting it. Vocal sometimes arcs in silence between piano phrases. In “Sweet Georgia Brown” (Ben Bernie/ Maceo Pinkard/Ken Casey), the word “sweet” sails between verse. Sullivan teases, making gossip of lyrics. A bit of savory scat decorates.
Occasional stop/start embellishment buoys mood rather than distracts. The rhythmic take is evident in “Lullaby in Ragtime” (Sylvia Fine-The Five Pennies) Sullivan moves sideways across the stage- step, sway, step, swap, hand on hip, bobbing with fetching sass. She’s having an infectiously good time.
“With these Barbara Cook songs, I realized the importance of vowels. As Eric (Director Eric Michael Gillett) said, you kind of get the feeling she was in a warm bath of vowels. “Dancing in the Dark” (Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz-The Bandwagon) evokes chiffon and patent leather shoes moving gracefully across reflecting floors. When Sullivan closes her eyes, we go with her. The lush version floats off.
“Ain’t Love Easy?” (Carol Hall) is unfussy and affecting. The vocalist seems to be recalling a particular relationship. With her husband Steve Downey to my right, reference feels personal. In the same vein, “You and I” (Leslie Bricusse- Goodbye Mr. Chips) wafts beside shadowy piano, vocal ending like a milkweed pod on the breeze.
The poignant lyric of Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All” is offered as if confiding in us. Hands at her sides, without a microphone, Sullivan’s pared down interpretation lands with grace and dignity.
KT Sullivan’s celebration is respectful, appreciative, affectionate. Vocals are full without stressing. Musicianship is accomplished. Direction shows great finesse.
Caveats: “I Can Cook” (Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden & Adolph Green) and “Better with A Band” (Wally Harper/David Zippel), both fine numbers, arrive so fast (and dense), Sullivan has trouble both keeping up and theatrically expressing herself. Both of these choices would also be better served by her contralto rather than soprano range.
Show Photos by Kevin Alvey
Wally Harper arrangements
Eric Michael Gillette-Director
Birdland Theatre 315 West 44th St. https://www.birdlandjazz.com/
February 27, 2019. Also March 1 & 2