by Andrew Poretz . . .
Susan Mack is a relative newcomer to cabaret after a long and successful career in finance. Her first show, Nobody Else but Me, directed by legendary Marilyn Maye, was a success at the nearby Don’t Tell Mama in 2018. Susan made her Birdland Theater debut in September. Her third performance of this show on November 8th was, like the first two, completely sold out. A pillar of the community in Westchester, Susan is creating a similar reputation in the world of cabaret.
Susan found her groove by the third song, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” (Manning Sherwin/Eric Maschwitz), which included the verse. Starting out slowly, an increasingly fast rhythm made “the night we met” feel more vivid and powerful.
For Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado” (“Out of Tune”), Susan chose to sing only the English translation of this bossa nova hit, explaining that the story is about a song of love that is slightly out of tune. For the first time this evening, she offered some scat singing, which included a vocal nod to “Girl from Ipanema” and “Take the A Train.”
Perhaps the most impressive song of the set was “Spain (I Can Recall)” (Chick Corea, Joaquin Rodrigo, lyrics by Al Jarreau). A dramatic interpretation, with a long section of just Susan and Tedd, the arrangement taking on a surprising, challenging turn to a syncopated rhythm, with Tedd and bassist David Fink playing in unison. Susan took more vocal chances here, and continued to do so throughout the set.
Susan had a significant family presence tonight, and she brought up her brother, Hy Stadlen, who was a big musical influence, to sit in on drums for the club’s famous anthem, “Lullaby of Birdland.”
An unlikely pairing of Cole Porter’s “It’s Alright with Me” and Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” showed some inventive transitions and was a showcase for David Fink. Here, Susan sang with only Fink for an entire chorus.
The arrangement of “Get Out of Town” (Cole Porter) utilized unison scat, with the trio also playing syncopated, unison lines, reminiscent of John Pizzarelli, Jr.’s “doubling” technique of scatting while duplicating the notes on guitar. A very effective device, this is best served in small doses.
For the terrific “Gotta Get Me Some ZZZ” (Dave Frishberg), a song for the insomniacs in the crowd, Susan wrote a few updates to Frishberg’s original lyrics, such as “I don’t need no Ambien from no MDs.” As is typical for a Frishberg song, “ZZZ” was a very fun number.
Overall, Music in the Air presented a solid set of good song choices that were well sung, with creative arrangements delivered with skill, charm, and wit. Susan’s voice, timing and instincts are good, and she has wisely surrounded herself with top-notch jazz musicians. Tedd Firth, one of the finest pianists and arrangers in cabaret, shaped a diverse set of excellent music. Under Lina Koutrakos’ direction, Susan had a smooth blend of patter and songs. She joked early in the set that she first gave Tedd some 70 songs to work with and would sing 50 of them tonight, ultimately performing 18.
Surprisingly, Susan never quite committed to a ballad. There were several songs sung partly as ballads, but when she ventured too close to a vulnerable, intimate moment, the tempo changed, as if to protect her from going there, like Icarus avoiding the sun. We know she can swing, and she can even scat. Perhaps she can open herself up with a full ballad or two in her next show.
Musical Direction and Arrangements by Tedd Firth
Directed by Lina Koutrakos
Piano: Tedd Firth
Bass: David Fink
Drums: Eric Halvorson
Photos: Michael Lee Stever