Remembering Mabel: K. T. Sullivan at The Crazy Coqs

Remembering Mabel
A cabaret show of songs from the repertoire of Mabel Mercer, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, Oscar Levant, Edward Heyman, Alec Wilder, Bill Engvick, Mortimer S. Palitz, Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, Bart Howard, Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, Ann Caldwell, Bill Zeffiro, and Noël Coward

K. T. Sullivan (singer) & Bill Zeffiro (pianist)

Reviewed by: Tom Vallance

Reviewed: 4 December, 2012
Venue: The Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zédel, Piccadilly Circus, London

The versatile K. T. Sullivan has long been noted for her splendid choice of material. The Mabel she remembers is Mabel Mercer (1900-84), who for years entertained New York audiences while perched on a stool and singing a repertoire of choice words and music by the finest composers and lyricists. Though not possessed of a great voice, she could convey all the heartache or playfulness of the material, and Frank Sinatra is just one of the many singers who claimed to have learnt how to phrase from Mercer. As Sullivan states at the start of her act, Mercer had hundreds of great songs from which to choose, and her repertoire echoes not only such exquisite taste, but also the causes that were close to her.

Sullivan is chameleon-like in matching her vocal styling to the mood that most suits a song, and at times she sounds uncannily like Mercer herself, particularly in semi-patter numbers like ‘It’s de-lovely’ and ‘It was worth it’. Yet the lovely Charles Strouse-Lee Adams ‘Once upon a time’ is sung in a dulcet timbre similar to Eileen Herlie, who introduced the song on Broadway – it is one of the many songs from flop shows that Mercer saved from oblivion. Were it not for Mercer, it is doubtful that anyone would remember the gorgeous Jerome Kern-Ann Caldwell ballad, ‘Once in a blue moon’, from the 1923 show Stepping Stones. Mercer was a champion of female lyricists, and would invariably feature songs by Caldwell, Dorothy Fields and Carolyn Leigh, and Sullivan does the same, including ‘Remind me’ (Fields with Kern), and ‘It amazes me’ (Leigh with Cy Coleman), both sung with a regard for the lyrics.

Sullivan also follows Mercer’s admirable practice of including a song’s verse. Another enthusiasm of Mercer’s was the catalogue of Bart Howard, whose first and biggest hit was ‘Fly me to the moon’. Sullivan tells that when he was trying to find a publisher, he was told by one of them, “nobody says ‘fly me’” and that he should alter the words to ‘take me’. It took him five seconds to decide against such a change. Howard and Mercer became great friends, and for her 50th-birthday he wrote her the wryly amusing ‘It was worth it’, saluting her grey hairs and other signs of ageing as evidence of a rich, full life.

Sullivan is given sterling support from Bill Zeffiro. No mean talent, he has written a musical, The Road to Ruin, set in the 1920s. He gives an engagingly droll version of his ‘Lower your expectations.’ Sullivan also raids the catalogues of Cole Porter (she believes ‘Experiment’ to be one of the greatest of songs, and renders it potently) and Noël Coward, Mercer doing another rescue with his mischievous number, ‘Chase me, Charlie’, from Ace of Clubs. Sullivan has fun with the song before changing mood with Coward’s great anthem, ‘If love were all’. Does one have a criticism of Sullivan’s act? Yes, it’s too short!

  • K. T. Sullivan is at The Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zédel, 20 Sherwood Street, Piccadilly Circus, London W1 until Saturday 8 December 2012
  • Bookings 020 7734 4888

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