KT Sullivan


September 27, 2008

Music Review | K T Sullivan

Excavating a Monument’s Earthy Side


Jerome Kern, the composer of “All the Things You Are,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and the music from “Show Boat,” is widely regarded as the rock upon which American popular song was built. But being a monument comes with a price. Reverence precludes humor, and statues of founding fathers rarely wear smiles.

As K T Sullivan reveals in her Kern show, “All the Things You Are,” at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, however, there is a lot more to him than stately ballads. The early, half-forgotten Kern of the Princess Theater musicals composed between 1915 and 1920 was a playful scamp, especially in collaborations with P. G. Wodehouse. The hilarious, dirty-minded “Cleopatterer” (from the 1917 show “Leave It to Jane”), which imagines the prolific sex life of Cleopatra, might even be seen as an early-20th-century prototype of rap. And Ms. Sullivan delivered it on Thursday with a tongue-in-cheek sense of merriment.

The whimsical titles of other obscure Kern songs with lyrics by Wodehouse — “A Bungalow in Quogue” from “The Riviera Girl” and “Nesting Time in Flatbush” from “Oh, Boy!” — speak for themselves. They’re funny, irreverent and delightfully unserious. It wasn’t until “Show Boat” in 1927 that Kern’s grand style flowered.

Ms. Sullivan, who is accompanied by Tedd Firth on piano, Andy Farber on reeds and Steve Doyle on bass, has a fluttery, semioperatic soprano that gives Kern’s most famous melodies their due. But her primary goal on Thursday was to bring his songs down to earth without damaging them. In a bitter, fast-paced “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” an attitude of disgust replaced the usual masochistic self-pity. Her version of “Ol’ Man River” (the first soprano rendition I’ve ever heard) suggested the lament of a hard-working prostitute plying her trade on the Mississippi.

The pairing of “A Fine Romance” and “All in Fun” made no bones about the sexual frustration of an untouched woman squired by an attractive but disinterested walker. A similar frustration pervaded “Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” in which Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric declares that life is tough for women in show business.