Country-style singer Stacy Sullivan has a problem. She's originally from Oklahoma, a place where the wind comes sweeping down the plain—and where there is a dearth of cabaret life. And today she resides in sunny California, another place where cabaret is not exactly booming. But that may change with the recent success of her local gig. Since country pop and jazz pop share many of the same artistic and melancholic bloodlines, it's remarkable that the two don't fuse more often into the kind of inspired marriage of visceral clout and intellectual savvy conjured by this unique singer.
The MAC Award winner, whose New York debut in 2002 grabbed the attention of cabaret-ites and the press, did a series of shows at the Hideaway Room @ Helen's in conjunction with her appearance at the Cabaret Convention. The show, "My Romance: A Country Cabaret"—with musical direction by Ed Martel, with Jeffrey Carney on bass, Jeffrey Campbell on guitar, and Clint de Ganon on drums—fused a little bit country with a lot of cabaret classics.
Right at the top, she told her audience, "Mabel Mercer was not my childhood hero—Dolly Parton was. But I loved the great American songbook." While she may lack the combination of hauteur, drama, and sense of whimsy that was Mercer's calling card, she brought her own plaintive interpretation to standards sung with a country flavor. The results were impressive. After a languid start, Sullivan's wispy vocals landed on target in spite of an endearing twang. Ultimately, her musical influences—gospel, jazz, pop, and country—combined to make a refined accounting of standards sung from the heart. A perfectly executed medley of Irving Berlin's "Always" and "Remember" meshed with "One for My Baby" (Mercer-Arlen) and "Come the Wild, Wild Weather" (Coward) was one of the hour's highlights. Too, she brought a cool, country sensibility to the Langston Hughes-Kurt Weill "What Good Would the Moon Be?" from "Street Scene," making it sound like a contemporary art song.
I might suggest that a little more attention be paid to key phrasing here and there, as on the Kern-Hammerstein II "Make Believe," which called for more commitment to the lyric. However, Stacy Sullivan is off and running and sure to make her mark.
On the subject of making marks, returning to cabaret after a hiatus is Sara Zahn in her terrific show "Bouncing Back for More," with new hubby Allan Kashkin at the piano, running at the Hideaway Room @ Helen's for a series of Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 28. Skillfully directed by Barry Kleinbort, the show is a mix of songs from her highly praised, award-winning theme shows plus a few surprises. Initially, she talks about past performances at Panache Encore, Judy's, Rainbow & Stars, Eighty Eight's, and Michael's Pub—all of which are now closed. She mentions her last four acts, which were all glowingly received tributes to songwriters. Her smoky alto and keen sense of phrasing make this show one to catch.
Zahn has such an intelligent, winning presence that she easily captivates a room. She lends her interpretive talents to gems like "When Jeremiah Can Be With Me" (Leigh-Pockriss) and "Real Live Girl" (Leigh-Coleman), reminding us that she is a keeper of the flame of the lyrics of Carolyn Leigh. Leonard Bernstein's very demanding "We Are Women" (written for the London production of "Candide") and a jazzy "Ain't Got No Tears Left" (cut from "On the Town") secure her place as a true torchbearer of great show music. Closing with the sociopolitical "Anyone Who Loves" (Alan Jay Lerner-Charles Strouse) from 1982's "Dance a Little Closer," Zahn makes a strong statement about same-sex marriage that is riveting as she explains that the song is about a gay couple who want to get married on the eve of war: "The words are more powerful, more potent today than when they were written." Similar words apply to Sara Zahn, who has reclaimed her place as one of today's finest cabaret talents.
Making her cabaret debut is Sarajean Devenport, who just completed a run at the Duplex with her show "I'm So Small." Directed by Brandon Cutrell, with Ray Fellman as brilliant musical director-arranger, this cute charmer has a lot going for her. But first, a few quibbles. For starters, little in the show said much about who she really is other than the fact she likes to get drunk. Regarding finding a title for the show, she exclaims, "The only other viable title was 'Hard-Ass Drunk Girl Makes Debut.' " All in fun, of course, but is this what she wants to send out to an audience that hasn't yet discovered her? To her credit, she pokes a lot of fun at herself and pulls off some tricky comedic songs with flair. However, a more personalized touch might be called for. A newcomer needs to establish an identity that is authentic and memorable. Songs about good times and partying come across as drivel sung by one so young. To add to the impersonal touch, Devenport repeatedly sang to the wall or staring into space. It's cabaret, not a theatre venue.
On the plus side, after kvetching about having to sit through country-music icon Merle Haggard's records, she sang his bluesy torcher "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," in medley with Dave Matthews' "Grace Is Gone." Devenport was intense and showed considerable interpretive abilities, turning this dark duo into a highlight. Devenport may be small, but she's talented and feisty. Now let's hope she finds the right show to make a true mark.
Jeanne MacDonald's recent new show was her best offering to date. At the Hideaway Room @ Helen's, the 2004 MAC Award winner was more confident and has moved up more than one notch in this genre. At times the show was a bit darker than previous offerings. However, with a flawless song list that matched Laura Nyro with Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Peggy Lee, Sammy Cahn, Cole Porter, and Leiber and Stoller, among others, she could do no wrong. Singing in her expressive mezzo, MacDonald offered a definitive reading of "Skylark" (Carmichael-Mercer) and then proved she can rock with a Beatles medley. In an hour that was all highlights, a particular standout was an amazing arrangement of Rod McKuen's "If You Go Away," which is the English translation of Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas." Against a subtle accompaniment of "Autumn Leaves" (Mercer-Prevert-Kosma), the song has never had more emotional depth. MacDonald was playful and sassy pairing Irving Berlin with Sam Cooke in a medley of "Shaking the Blues Away" and "Twistin' the Night Away." If ever a cabaret artist was ripe to move on to the major rooms, it's Jeanne MacDonald.