Club Review: Stacy Sullivan, Todd Murray in “I’m Glad There Is You—The Musical Romance of Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee

November 8, 2022 | By

What could go wrong?  One of New York cabaret’s warmest, most intelligent, and talented vocalists paired with a solid crooner in the classic mode whose rich, smooth sound and smart phrasing sets him apart from other current practitioners of saloon singing paired to sing the songs of Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra accompanied by two accomplished and exciting young musicians. I am sorry to report that with I’m Glad There Is You—The Musical Romance of Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, the new show by Todd Murray and Stacy Sullivan which debuted at Birdland Theater, the answer to that question is a lot.

Stacy Sullivan and Todd Murray (Photo: Courtesy of Birdland)

First to what went right. The two singers were in fine voice (in spite of some poor sound that resulted in echo-y distraction) and looked smashing. There were some interesting observations and bits of information hidden in the onslaught of chat.  Obviously doing the songs of two icons of the American popular song offers an astonishingly large and varied repertoire from which to choose. Each of them had a chance to shine unfettered by the goings on all around them. For Ms. Sullivan it was a terrific take on “Fever” (Otis Blackwell, Eddie Cooley) that was consistently inventive and surprising, and afforded pianist Yasuhiko Fukuoka and bassist Sean Murphy the opportunity to dazzle with their brilliant playing. Sullivan’s vocals were assured, and her phrasing remained wonderfully her own even when matched against Lee’s classic version. She revealed that the number was lifted from a previous Peggy Lee show of hers which explained its distinct sound and style apart from her other solos in the show. Likewise, “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” (Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn) showcased Murray’s passionate delivery as he combined the power of his voice with his attention to lyric detail.  If only this level of excellence had been achieved elsewhere in the show, what a solid delight this would have been. Alas, it was not meant to be. 

Often when I criticize a director it is for not doing enough to shape the show, or to finetune the phrasing, or to offer clean and evocative movement on the stage. In this case, my criticism is that it is too directed—it was overstuffed and slight at the same time. The performances were too often all surface with little substance and seemed to rely on what the audience already brought to the night in a swirl of empty nostalgia. Savannah Brown is credited as the director, but I have no idea how much blame she should shoulder and what missteps were created by the singers themselves. There were way too many “high concept” moments, far too much talk between and during songs, and embarrassingly cringe-y patter and song set-ups that would have seem dated decades ago.  So much so, in fact, that I could almost feel the cobwebs forming on the stage as the show progressed. 

It is shocking to see two such accomplished performers so ill-served. The constant implication that Sinatra and Lee were an “item” offered no insight into their art; it seemed conjured out of thin air in order to have a hook on which the two could pretend to flirt and seduce within numbers, and at one point, awkwardly waltzing. That flirting in songs and patter was accompanied by forced smiles and the awkwardness of poorly rehearsed presenters at an Oscar ceremony.  The staging, such as it was, ranged from negligible to egregious, culminating in a duet of “Something Stupid” (C. Carson Parks) in which they stood completely still staring straight out into the house as if they were automatons performing in Songbook Land at Disney World. Murray began “This Love of Mine” (Sinatra, Sol Parker, Hank Sanicola) but after the first chorus, Sullivan began telling a story about Sinatra. Instead of stopping and waiting to sing again, he mimed that he was continuing to sing as she spoke. Sullivan followed with the opening verses of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” (Kansas Joe McCoy) until Murray cut her off with talk and it was her turn to silently keep singing. It would have been laughable if it weren’t so ridiculous. 

Even the opening numbers, “I’m Glad There is You” (Jimmy Dorsey, Paul Madeira) and “I Love Being Here with You” (Peggy Lee, Bill Schluger), were interrupted by patter, as were most of the songs. So much so that the night began to feel like a lecture illustrated with clips of songs rather than a cabaret show. There were far too many songs for any of them to make much impact, apart from the two that I have mentioned. This culminated in an endless medley that became a cheap grab for applause of recognition over and over. There was a narrative of sorts in the medley involving a rivalry between the two, each trying to top the other with hits. It rang as false as the romantic attempts elsewhere and overall revealed a lack of respect for the material they were supposedly celebrating.  Why would such obviously savvy performers waste time mocking the very songs they chose to honor? And why waste precious time cajoling the audience to sing along to material that they could have explored more fully and with emotional honesty? There were 18 songs, not counting the endless medley, but the same problems plagued most of them, so I won’t list any of the others.

Frank Sinatra (even at his rat-packiest) and Peggy Lee deserve much more than this misguided show. And so do Todd Murray and Stacy Sullivan. In case it is not yet clear, I am mystified. 

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Presented at Birdland Theater, 315 W. 44th St., on October 31.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”

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