With Live to Tell: My Life, Madonna’s Songs, performer Kim Sutton, director Lennie Watts, and musical director Steven Ray Watkins have created an immensely ambitious cabaret event. Using songs associated with—and often written (or co-written) by—pop star Madonna Ciccone, Sutton presents a sort of sung-through musical pageant based on her own personal history. We see her grow up, leave home, cope with a parent’s death, have children of her own. Near the end, the show turns the spotlight on a serious health crisis that Sutton faced recently, which culminated in her undergoing Deep Brain Stimulation surgery.
A staggering total of 47 songs (or fragments of songs) comprise an elaborate score. There is extensive choreography (by Ashton Michael Corey), executed by Sutton and her three male backup performers (Paul Scott Pilcz, Derek Staranowski, and Corey himself). The performers utilize not only the stage of the Laurie Beechman Theatre, but also the floor of the showroom—out among the audience.
While I admired the enterprising spirit of the creative team and the courage and stamina that Sutton found to tell this story, I was disappointed by much of Live to Tell. However, I saw the show on its opening night, when the performers seemed not yet to have settled fully “into the groove” (as one Madonna song would put it). Some of the choreography seemed ragged, especially segments depicting Sutton’s childhood. These moments relied heavily on overly cute bits, as with “Lucky Star” (Ciccone), which incorporated a children’s clapping game. It’s true that Madonna’s own troupes of backup performers have raised the bar high over the years with their precision and athleticism. Still, the staging here could have been better—and perhaps will be, in subsequent performances.
More problematic: Sutton herself seemed to get lost in all the frantic onstage activity. She looked appropriately Madonna-ish with her spiky blond hair and boudoir-worthy bodice (she passed on the cone-cup brassiere). And, vocally, she was generally on target. Still, in the early part of the show, only some of the ballad-paced selections (such as Ciccone and Patrick Leonard’s “Oh Father”) and numbers in which everyone else got physically out of her way (Ciccone and David Foster’s “You’ll See”) found Sutton communicating with her listeners with sustained intimacy.
Things shifted for the better, though, when Sutton arrived at scenes depicting the diagnosis that changed her life. As we watched her begin to notice a persistent hand tremor, her performance deepened into something real and moving. The creative team wisely utilized Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Your Little Body’s Slowly Breaking Down” from Evita (in which Madonna starred onscreen) to help explicate this sequence. During the final twenty minutes of the show, I came to appreciate what Sutton is capable of as a singer.
She had excellent support from her onstage musicians, including Watkins on piano, drummer Don Kelly, and bassist Matt Sharfglass. (Dan Fabricatore will play bass in a subsequent performance.) The combo sounded especially tight performing a pleasing arrangement of “In This Life” (Ciccone, Shep Pettibone). But, frankly, Live to Tell raised doubts about whether the Madonna songbook is a natural choice for a jukebox-style musical. Some songs in the star’s repertoire have attractive melodies, including “Like a Prayer” (Ciccone, Patrick Leonard) and “Crazy for You” (John Bettis, Jon Lind). But there are plenty of disposable titles in the catalog as well—songs that were, perhaps, useful tools for building a cultural icon’s infrastructure a few decades ago, but that haven’t stood the test of time.
Live to Tell: My Life, Madonna’s Songs
Laurie Beechman Theatre – March 2, 5, 16