KT Sullivan is one of the hardest working women in cabaret. If she were a lesser talent, she might be considered overexposed in New York, but this bright and versatile performer keeps coming up with well-crafted shows that each have their own delicious appeal. In her new act at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, which runs through March 30, Sullivan and her longtime musical director/pianist Larry Woodard salute music first heard in revues that played on Broadway between the years 1902 and 1952. The show is titled Scandals and Follies after the book on the same subject by Lee Davis, and it is a tasty little cream puff of an entertainment.
The first bite of this show is the biggest: a gargantuan medley that contains a staggering 29 songs. The items included--some represented by entire verses, others by merely a snippet of melody--might have been more cleverly juxtaposed, but the heady mix of familiar standards is like cabaret comfort food. The audience, ourselves included, had its musical taste buds stimulated and we were hungry for more.
Sullivan, in the tradition of Mary Cleere Haran, peppers her act with spiffy little anecdotes, like the one about the battle between ambitious young songwriters Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern to get a young singer in a revue to choose one of their songs. Inexplicably, Sullivan doesn't follow up with her own rendition of the two numbers in question. Nonetheless, she effectively pokes fun at book musicals and "their pesky plots" in order to make us appreciate the freedom offered by the revue format. With a touch of history here and a smattering of good-natured gossip there, Sullivan's patter is a very big and effective part of this winning show.
The star, of course, offers the whole package. Cabaret's glamour queen can make a clever, theatrical entrance in the manner of a Ziegfeld showgirl, but her special gift is her way with musical comedy. Sullivan is tops, whether she's performing character pieces like "Tum on and Tiss Me" (A. Jackson/G. Gershwin) from Scandals of 1920 or putting over a smart lyric like "If You Hadn't But You Did" (Styne/Comden & Green) from Two on the Aisle (1951). An actress as well as a singer, she also does a great job with ballads like "The Land Where the Good Songs Go" (Wodehouse/Kern) from Miss 1917.
Her partner on the show, Woodard, is more than a musical director and pianist. A number of songs here are his alone and he performs several duets with Sullivan as well. Woodard has a congenial presence and sings with warmth and personality, even if he doesn't hit the center of every note. Further, he guides Sullivan through her material with just the right level of support at the keyboard.
KT Sullivan really knows how to connect with an audience, which is of paramount importance in a venue like the Oak Room. It's a tough club to play because the stage is in the middle of a long and narrow space, which means that most patrons are seated either behind the performer or to his/her extreme left or right. Even seasoned pros often can't manage the trick of reaching the people against the wall behind them or at the far ends of the room, but Sullivan has the technique to do so, somehow managing to make everyone present feel involved in her performance. Happily, Scandals and Follies is a show that is fully involving in itself.