by Alix Cohen
Cabaret is entering a theatrical stage. Imaginative and capable vocalists now sometimes offer shows with dialogue and/or dramatic arc created by astutely selected songs and staging. Though Stacy Sullivan has always brought her acting chops to performance, this has been a year in which we’ve watched that skill veritably bloom with the show A Night at the Troubadour, the CD Stranger in a Dream, and this presentation. Partnering with Todd Murray, whose last New York venture was the very smart and equally soulful Croon, the two offer an unflinching view of a couple who must decide whether to stay together despite –issues.
“…She’s an eagle…Murray sings from the bar area describing the woman he loves with the heartsick tone of anticipated loss “Strange Birds” (Lance Horne). Phrasing resembles a monologue, this is the way thoughts would occurr. On stage, the pair segue into “Separate Ways” (Teddy Thompson): What can I do with hello, how are you?/Nothing’s ever said that should be…They stand apart, turning to one another only when lyrics compel. ‘A matter of communication. Harmony is organic, attitude rueful. Her vocal range (purposely) lacerates. Physical direction illustrates.
The artists don’t take the safe road of morphing into one, heart-clogging entity. Sullivan is expansive, wrenching; Murray locked away, steeled. Different experiences are further illuminated with his portrayal of a man getting resolutely stoned: a rhythmic beat rises from the piano bench, long pauses attempt to come to grips, expression arrives gritty. And her sassy, Nashville, liberty-bound response: Goodbye to the fussin’/Goodbye to the fightin’/You say you’re gone for good/Can I get that in writin’?…the character a little too declaratory to fully believe.
With piano conjuring the irrevocable passing of time, Murray endures a first night alone followed by Sullivan’s enthralling “Good Morning Heartache” (Irene Higginbotham/ Ervin Drake/ Dan Fisher.) Instead of the big, bluesy interpretation to which we’re accustomed, the performer excavates lyrics from deep within, voice quivering, ending in a whisper.
Alexandra Jenkins’s virtuoso violin palpably cuts.
Two show stopping duets follow: a staccato “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”(Adele Atkins/Max Martin/ Shellback) which includes blistering mockery, and the tandem, gospel influenced, “God Knows I Tried” (Lana Del Rey)/ “Cry Me a River” (Arthur Hamilton). Astonishing arrangements find the couple singing atop, beneath, and beside each other, sometimes combative, at others solitary and wounded, each in his own way wailing as they circle and pass. Sullivan looks entreatingly at Murray who turns away, eyes closed, wrapped in despair as his vibrato changes from grit to ripple. Both voices are powerfully open throated. It’s extremely telling that during a brief pause in songs, the audience remains in rapt silence.
By the time they get to Joni Mitchell’s “River,” which plays stunningly as a duet, the battle is over as is this particular suite. Murray’s achingly splendid “Go Leave” (Kate & Anna McGarrigle), accompanied by Troy Fannin’s warm guitar, is viscerally defeated; Sullivan’s vocal response imbued with confusion. From where she’s been seated at the edge of the stage, she rises and walks towards him (in the dark) one hand tensely rubbing her hip. They sing: I don’t wanna fall, I don’t wanna fly/ I don’t wanna be dangled over/ The edge of a dying romance /But I don’t wanna stop… as each in his own axis, hands reach out to find one another. (“End of the World” Matt Albers)
An encore of The Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is so original in its take, what was once wry and jaunty becomes a full blooded finale.
Whoever put this show together has chosen and paired unexpectedly gutsy material to its best advantage. The powerful piece takes one on a definite journey. Voices work beautifully together often manifesting mosaics. Neither artist showboats. A symbiotic accomplishment.
Musical Director Yasuhiko Fukuoka, whose audacious textural dynamics and adroit sensitivity frame every number and Director Michel Wallerstein, whose attention to visual, emotional nuance is ever present are equal contributors here. Musicianship is first rate.
The evening opens with painterly overture by Yasuhiko Fukuoka and a bleak “Ice on the Hudson”:Voice mail and a “beep”/Says he’ll be in love with her forever… (David Hadju/Renee Rosnes)
Photos: Steve Friedman
Separate Ways: Todd Murray & Stacy Sullivan
ADDITIONAL SHOW: November 22 at 7pm
Directed by Michel Wallerstein
MD/Piano- Yasuhiko Fukuoka
Troy Fannin-Guitar, Bobbie Lee Crow III (Cello), Alexandra Jenkins (Violin)
Feinstein’s/54 Below 254 West 54th St.
Venue Calendar: https://54below.com/calendar/