Not All the Days Were Good
Stacy Sullivan, as Peggy Lee, Sings at the Metropolitan Room
January 3, 2014
The eye rolls, the swivel, the gowns and the platinum hair: The singer Peggy Lee has been parodied so often, especially by drag performers, that it is easy to confuse the caricature with the complicated pop-jazz singer who died 12 years ago this month. Sorting out the contradictions of Lee’s life and career, Stacy Sullivan’s show at the Metropolitan Room, “It’s a Good Day: A Tribute to Miss Peggy Lee,” paints an empathetic, melancholy portrait.
If Lee’s stage image was extravagantly glamorous, her pop-jazz singing was radically minimalist; she deployed her large voice softly, and she played a mysterious come-hither game of artful insinuation.
In the show, which opened on Thursday, Ms. Sullivan played down the glitter, the better to peer under the seductive artifice of a performer whose style combined elements of Mae West and Billie Holiday and, as the years passed, suggested a woman increasingly trapped inside the image she had struggled to create. In its through line, this North Dakota farm girl flees her hometown to discover the bright lights and big city of swing music, loses her innocence and becomes the personification of lonely sophistication in an era when sophistication was synonymous with world-weariness.
Instead of imitating Lee, Ms. Sullivan takes on her body language and style while searching for her essence and finding ambiguity: a darkness lurking below the surface of songs like “It’s a Good Day” and “I Love Being Here With You.” Ms. Sullivan, who can swing, had strong support from Jon Weber’s jazz piano and Steve Doyle’s bass.
The Thursday show steadily deepened, reaching a still point with the movie theme “Johnny Guitar,” in which Lee’s lyrics to a wistful Victor Young melody wove an erotic spell focused on the name “Johnny,” murmured like a prayer. Another still point was reached with a spare, haltingly phrased rendition of the Rodgers and Hart standard “Nobody’s Heart,” in whose empty spaces Ms. Sullivan made you feel the howling loneliness of a star in a gilded cocoon.