Written by Roy Sander
Kathleen Downey's Granite Room - August 20, 27, September 3, 10
Clad in an exquisite formal dress cut low in the back, she stands at a delicate swag railing near the edge of the stage, awash in light. With utmost poise and simplicity she sings "Kiss Me Again." The stage image is reminiscent of the balcony scene in Private Lives, the beautiful song is from Victor Herbert and Henry Blossom's 1905 operetta Mlle Modiste, and the singer and the singing are radiant. This is only one of many gorgeous moments in KT Sullivan's new show, an evening of festive elegance.
To inaugurate the new Granite Room at Tribeca's City Hall restaurant (which boasts an estimable kitchen, by the way) Sullivan has chosen a program of songs all written no later than 1929—and all sung without a mic. Though the club is not small, her unamplified soprano has no problem reaching all parts of the room, and she transforms the space into a salon by from time to time weaving among the tables as sings. She throws a marvelous party.
The selections are a mix of familiar standards, material not typically performed in cabaret, and a few relative obscurities. Her opening number, a glorious medley of songs mostly written over a hundred years ago, establishes at the outset that this will be a special evening. Among the standards are "Bill" (Kern, Wodehouse, Hammerstein II), Cole Porter's "The Tale of an Oyster," Noël Coward's "If Love Were All," "The Laughing Song" from Die Fledermaus (Johann Strauss, Karl Haffner, Richard Genée), and "I Want to Be Bad" (DeSylva, Brown, & Henderson). "Something I Never Knew" (Al Abrams) is a luscious rarity about love newly discovered.
Sullivan approaches ballads with vocal grace and beauty and a keen appreciation of the lyric—and what is more, with admirable respect for historical style. This is not to say that she treats them as museum pieces; on the contrary, her interpretations are vibrant. Her handling of comic material has a light, sophisticated playfulness. She's naturally funny, mining humor easily and effortlessly. Even though she sings only a few bars of "In the Good Old Summer Time" (George Evans, Ren Shields) she succeeds in getting a laugh merely with a pause and a look. Most of us have seen any number of performances of Irving Berlin's "I Love a Piano," but I doubt that you've heard a funnier reading of the line "Give me a P-I-A-N-O, oh, oh."
Speaking of playfulness, Sullivan delivers a tour de force medley of twenty-nine songs written in '29. With witty links and segues, it is outrageous and wonderful. (When one compares the extraordinary popular songs written in that single year with the stuff one hears on radio today, one can only feel sad. To name a few: "Am I Blue?," "Liza," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Louise," "You Do Something to Me," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "What Is This Thing Called Love?," "Singin' in the Rain," "More Than You Know," "Without a Song," "Happy Days Are Here Again"… Did I say sad? I meant sick.)
She is accompanied on piano by the exceptional Jon Weber. His occasional jazz flavoring is always interesting, often unexpected, and never obtrusive. When she does the show again, she should consider simplifying and tightening the sequence at the end of the show; other than that, it's a wow.