The Sultry Side of Cole
The Beach Café, NYC, September 14, 2017
Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes
Everybody (with any taste) loves Cole Porter, but most agree his oeuvre is overexposed. These days, the reason to attend an evening of the erudite composer/lyricist is to enjoy a favored performer. Though each has a personal “take,” there’s little variation one can cite as essential. No more. Stacy Sullivan and Yasuhiko Fukuoka have reinvented the wheel. The Sultry Side of Cole is a unique presentation in which extremely familiar songs arrive fresh, artfully arranged and vocalized, coloring lyric meaning. I find this rather astonishing.
Porter is here filtered through his classical music background, which includes not only American and French studies, but the 1920s score for a protest ballet merging jazz and classical that criticized Congress’ restrictive immigration laws. Preceding George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Within the Quota is thought to have been the first of its kind. Sullivan calls discovery of the score a “game changer,” perhaps inciting the risky deconstruction she then initiated.
Instead of insinuating itself languidly, a Gershwinesque “Too Darn Hot” inhabits forceful, spiraling music. Sullivan stands at the calm center of a tornado: “Misterrrrrrr(music) Pants for romancccccce (music) is nnnnnot….” She seems rapturous, exulting in sound and sensation. The immensely talented Fukuoka rarely plays melody as written. What we experience is side-by-side performance, compatible, focused entities in their own right. As Rilke said of solitude, they “salute and respect each other.”
“It’s All Right with Me” emerges slowly, almost a lament. Piano is shadowy. Sullivan projects nervous acquiescence, moments of fragile optimism, but ends with a wrinkled brow. You’ve never heard it this way before. It’s heartbreaking. Remember, this is an actress. Host Mark Nadler steps in for the ailing T. Oliver Reid to duet “So in Love.” Piano is turbulent. The couple immerse themselves in one another’s presence, gazing, touching, almost clutching. Sullivan fans herself and makes a joke about her husband’s responsibilities later that night having diminished because of Nadler’s attentions.
Strains of delicate Debussy appear to buoy “You Do Something to Me,” which evokes the singer’s memory of a high school prom date with bad boy Cole Johnson. Her story is delightfully cinematic, worthy of O. Henry. With any luck the show will be revived elsewhere tendering an opportunity to hear (and watch) it unfold firsthand. A highlight.
“Anything Goes,” with repetitive theme and limited octave range, might be a Brecht/Weill number. When Sullivan covertly inserts rap lines (by Eminem), they sound theatrically apt, rather than out of place. (No other lyrics in the show are changed.) The sequence “Live and Let Live,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Live and Let Live” is inspired by Porter’s own “passionate” interpretation of the bookends. Sullivan claims it as an anthem. She determinedly circles the room, bending into people’s faces, proselytizing. “Don’t Fence Me In” briefly reveals the Oklahoma-bred country girl, then we’re back to “Live and Let Live” with Mozartian fervor, conjuring fireworks. Oh, to play a recording of this once a day like a team cheer.
Two selections accompanied by Fukuoka on unfussy ukulele are as close as we get to accustomed Porter. Sullivan’s favorite island is celebrated with a jaunty “Take Me Back to Manhattan,” replete with captivating hula gestures. A pristine “It’s De-Lovely” ends the evening. “Let yourself go,” the artist whispers. The perfect coda.
The Sultry Side of Cole (in my opinion, an unfitting title) is daring, idiosyncratic, entertaining, and successful.