BWW Review: Sue Matsuki Celebrates 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below...The Godmother of Cabaret and Julie Wilson mentee Sue Matsuki owns the stage at 54 Below - By Stephen Mosher, Broadway World, (June 2022)
It was a glittery, glamorous night at Feinstein's/54 Below Thursday night as Sue Matsuki took her solo show debut bow on the stage of Broadway's Living Room. After thirty-eight years of singing cabaret in piano bars, cabaret rooms, living rooms, and rooms of a more, shall we say, cozy nature, the woman nicknamed The Godmother of Cabaret dared to ask herself if she could fill the seats that stand between the four gold-gilt walls of the basement supper club. The answer is yes. There was nary an empty seat last night as Matsuki, elegant in head-to-toe Hollywood, joined her five-piece band (three musicians, two backup singers) for eighty minutes of music that has made a difference to her during her 38 SEASONS OF LOVE.
38 Seasons Of Love is Ms. Matsuki's celebration of being an active member of the cabaret and concert community and industry for nearly four decades. Having started her career downtown at The Village Gate, picking up Musical Director Gregory Toroian a few years later, and continuing to sing for her supper for all these days, Sue has pulled together numbers from each of her shows over the years (at least several shows, if not all) and, working backward from today to that first show at The Village Gate, performs them as the woman she is today. Working with standards, Broadway, and the occasional piece of pop music, Sue Matsuki was showing absolute confidence Thursday night, and that confidence is alluring, to say the least. Matsuki is a very appealing person to have on a stage in front of you. She is calm, she is excited, she is content, she is at home. Whatever she is doing on the stage, Sue Matsuki is unafraid of the moment. She has never looked better, she has never sounded better, and for the entirety of her program on Thursday, Sue Matsuki was living her best life. No nerves or intimidation walked up onto the stage with Sue because she knows who she is and what she is about - all of her, to be exact.
During her program, Ms. Matsuki went places, vocally, to which her audience has become accustomed, singing stylized arrangements like the "Too Darn Hot" number she performed at the 2020 Bistro Awards, a number that was good, then, but great at 54 Below. She also took the audience on audible jaunts that they don't get every time from the (frequent) jazz stylist, making use of seldom-heard gorgeous low tones on "Not Exactly Paris" and some bonafide belting worthy of a musical theater actress on "From This Moment On." It isn't just the music, though, where Sue shared all the parts of herself because her patter opened her up for absolute authenticity on a couple of stand-out stories. She may have been dressed like a Grand Dame of Cabaret but Sue Matsuki is also a gal. She's a dame, she's a broad, she's a lady with a sense of humor, and when she was working with script portions that gave her a chance to be the Grand Dame, she took them - but she wasn't afraid to shake off the sequins and talk like a girl in her blue jeans and t-shirt. Anybody who has had a great love (and, probably, even those who have dreamed of one) could relate to the story about her Amazonian honeymoon. And anyone who has had a wild and crazy youth (and even those who have dreamed of one) would get caught up in the gales of laughter inspired by the Alaskan adventure she and her girlfriend had before their marriages came along. Seeing Ms. Matsuki use all the parts of herself, as a woman and as a performer, was the foundation upon which the audience enjoyment was built.
Sue Matsuki is a very generous performer. For some eighty minutes, she provided her audience with seventeen different songs, tidbits about their origin, and stories from her personal life. Although Musical Director (and Matsuki longtimer) Gregory Toroian is a jazz specialist, the duo decided when it would be prudent to stay on a more traditional path (an "Autumn Leaves" dedicated to Julie Wilson, and an evening highlight, as was a gorgeous "I'll Close My Eyes") or when to go experimental (a reinvented
"Moondance" that paid off in the extreme, or an "Anticipation" that this Carly Simon fan is still trying to decide whether or not he likes, although there is no denying that it was fascinating to witness). The Matsuki generosity that extended to the audience was not exclusive to the patrons, though, because her ardent devotion to Toroian and the rest of her colleagues led Sue into making some bold choices that some may question, but that this reporter does not. Although the name on the bill was hers, Sue opted to not make the show all hers, stopping frequently to announce the names of the musicians before stepping into the shadows to allow them extensive (and impressive) solos. There are those who would question the surrendering of her stage time to the musicians but Toroian, bassist Skip Ward and drummer David Silliman are like brothers to Matsuki, and it is absolutely within her brand to want their artistry up front, and not just behind, supporting her. The same goes for her backup singers, colleagues Maria Corsaro and Kati Neiheisel, whom Sue didn't just put right up front, she played with them during the show, in the same kind of way that Bette Midler might have goofed with The Harlettes. 38 Seasons of Love was sold as a Sue Matsuki show but it played like a family act. That's the act Mama wanted and that's the act Mama presented, and there will, surely, be cabaret traditionalists who disagree with the choice. Too bad for them. This writer supports Sue's choice.
On the topic of support, though, there is one thing that should be mentioned, by way of preparing the 38 Seasons Of Love team for future performances like this one. Perhaps it was being in a room that is larger than the smaller venues Matsuki and co. tend to play, but there were times when the band got on top of Sue. It wasn't all the time, certainly not when Matsuki was using that gorgeous belt-y chest voice, and not when her vocals were so perfectly placed up in her mask - it tended to occur when Sue was working with that breathy, reedy quality that she reserves for her jazzier stylings - not the time for the supporting musicians and singers to get on top of the voice of the star performer. Just something for the company and director (and Matsuki's spiritual brother) David Sabella to keep an ear out for in future performances in venues of this size.
And speaking of size - it was a real joy to see that Ms. Matsuki's debut performance at Feinstein's was a full house, and not only that but a house full of cabaret luminaries, there to support this Godmother who has spent the better part of the last thirty-eight years supporting other members of the community. If there were one thing this writer could wish for, it was a small change in the presentation that would have sweetened the deal for the audience. Twice during the evening, Matsuki made use of the 54 Below monitors to display photos of her mentor, Julie Wilson, and to flash one of the postcards used to promote an early show. Since this was a retrospective covering thirty-eight years worth of cabarets, it would have been nice to have the monitors showcase every postcard from every show, and the names of the clubs those shows played - it would have been a fun way to really take the audience on that journey (and to see all the hairstyles from over the years, though this writer prefers the silver tresses of the 2022 Sue). It's a tiny suggestion that this reporter thinks might make more replete the musical journey of the next time 38 Seasons of Love plays Feinstein's/54 Below, a room that Sue Matsuki, clearly, should have been playing sooner than her thirty-eighth year in the business.
Sue Matsuki Celebrates 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below - By Jed Ryan, Lavender After Dark (June 2022)
It is probably a cliche for any reviewer to declare that an artist was “at their finest” at a particular performance– especially when that artist, even after 38 years of show business, gives every performance with the enthusiasm of an ingenue who is just getting started… and who shows no signs of slowing down. Award-winning cabaret star Sue Matsuki proudly declares in her official biography that she “has played every club in New York from Birdland to Feinstein’s to the Iridium… and has even played Carnegie Hall and The Metropolitan Opera!” Still, I am going to give into that aforementioned cliche and say that Matsuki’s latest production, appropriately named 38 Seasons of Love, was the epitome of Sue’s well-earned style of star quality. Matsuki mentioned how her audience that night was largely made up of her peers from the various worlds of New York City entertainment… and that there were, in fact, too many for Sue (or this reviewer, for that matter) to acknowledge by name. Given that, their presence at Feinstein’s/54 Below on Thursday, June 2nd elevated the night from “show” to bona fide “cabaret event”. Packing a wallop of a song list into a 70-minute running time, Matsuki gave the audience a new selection of numbers ranging from haunting ballads to kitschy musical candy. The set list included many tried-and-true crowd pleasers from the likes of Cole Porter to Elvis Costello to Van Morrison, as well as many musical gems that have been begging to be heard again… or, for many of the audience, for the first time. (Frasier, The Sensuous Lion, anyone?) Matsuki’s meticulous song selection process has always been one of the singer’s calling cards, but that is only one. Her engaging personality, which comes across through both her songs and through her storytelling in between the notes, is another. (More about both later…) But of course, when it comes down to it, there’s… the voice! To borrow from Porter’s From This Moment On: When Matsuki delivers the lyric, “Every care is gone, from this moment on…” it perfectly established how the audience felt when Matsuki sang her first note.
Talent attracts talent, and Matsuki has indeed surrounded herself with plenty of it. Her lovely backup singers, Maria Corsaro and Kati Neiheisel, are both established singers who have received critical acclaim with their own one-woman shows. At the very opening of the evening, Matsuki asked, “How do you measure singing 38 years?” We learned that 38 years of music is about 19,972,800 minutes, before Sue kicked off with (38) Seasons of Love from Rent. When Matsuki, Corsaro, and Neiheisel combined forces for that deliciously drawn out last “LOVE” in the final verse, the moment was the equivalent of the first ray of sun poking through a spring sky. The show features Gregory Toroian on piano, Skip Ward on bass, and David Silliman on percussion. Let’s just say that there are rewards in working with the same musicians for a long time: The synergy between Matsuki and these three easy-on-the-eyes men really comes across. Toroian, in particular, got a shoutout as her longtime and still frequent collaborator. His piano work is astonishing, perhaps best exemplified during one of Sue’s “signature” songs– a jazzy version of Moondance. Toroian’s piano work created a parallel, very palpable undercurrent of both longing and… anticipation! Speaking of which: Very few artists can take a classic so identified with its artist– in this case, Carly Simon’s Anticipation— and truly make it their own. Matsuki shared that the song was the result of the creative process between herself and Toroian… and as a result, Matsuki’s hauntingly beautiful version, sang later on in the show, becomes a musical metaphor for the journey of any artist. For the audience, it was truly a transcendent moment to hear Sue sing, “Stay right here, ’cause these are the good old days...” Later on, we heard the second of Matsuki’s signature songs, I’ll Close My Eyes. This one is, indeed, “quintessential Sue”.
In one of those previously mentioned moments of storytelling, Matsuki paid loving tribute to one of her mentors, the late Julie Wilson. Wilson, who was nominated for a Tony Award in 1989, is widely regarded as “The Queen of Cabaret”. Matsuki recalled when Wilson sang Autumn Leaves to her. This night, it was the audience’s turn to hear it. Complete with truly haunting bass by Skip Ward, vocals to match by Sue, and the lyrics “But I miss you most of all, My darling; When autumn leaves, Start to fall…”, there was unlikely a dry eye in the theater for that number. Another powerful moment came with Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars, an oft-redone bossa nova classic written by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Sung by Sue with only minimal adornment from her musicians, the song– a musical encapsulation of the Matsukis’ honeymoon in the Amazon jungle (Really!)– was yet another provocative moment. Too Darn Hot, an audience favorite, segued into Heatwave. Was it intentional lighting effects, or just the combined heat from Sue, Maria, and Kati that seemed to turn the back wall of the stage a searing red?
Sue Matsuki is indeed a class act, which makes her particular suited for Feinstein’s/54 Below’s upscale aesthetic. Yet Matsuki is absolutely not afraid to show her playful side to the audience, with a double dose of musical mirth: The first was I Don’t Know, a blues song which Sue discovered; astonishingly, no writing credits are available. Sue and her backup singers clearly loved camping it up with this one. Next was I Don’t Want Love from Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks. How could you not love lyrics like, “If love make you give up ham and greens, Chicken pot pie and lima beans; If love make you give up all those things, I don’t want love!”? The audience sure… ahem, “ate it up”, making it a clap-along. Later on, Sue gave us You Smell So Good, an unabashedly silly song… but no one could dare say it’s not, well, catchy. Sue performs with just the right amount of tongue in cheek. The hands down comedic winner of the night’s playlist, however, was the campy delight Frasier, the Sensuous Lion, one of those mega-rare baubles of baud that are begging to be heard again– complete with references to “lion Viagra”. This one has to be heard to be believed.
After a “Sweet 16” of songs, there was indeed an encore. I won’t give it away… except to say that it was indeed a love song to Sue Matsuki’s audience. All I can say is, here’s to another 38 years… or maybe, another 19,972,800 minutes!
Sue Matsuki’s 38 Seasons of Love at Feinstein’s/54 Below was Directed by David Sabella and Lina Koutrakos, with Musical Direction and Arrangement by Gregory Toroian. Photo of Sue by Eric Stephen Jacobs.
Sue Matsuki Celebrates 38 SEASONS OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below - By Betsyann Faiella, Bistro Awards (June 2022) Not a review, publicly posted comments
Last Thursday I went to see Sue at Feinstein's/54Below, celebrating 38 Seasons of Love - dedicated to her 38 years of making music in NYC, 28 of them with Mr. Toroian, who was on the bandstand at F/54. Sue is now my friend, and that's why this review is not "official" and hosted by any of our beloved publications. I just wanted to say: THE SHOW WAS FANTASTIC. A CLASSIC nightclub show! The repertoire was sophisticated, once again, and Sue was like the hostess at a mahvelous party. She was dressed to the teeth in black sequins, and at the risk of being crass --and I really don't care anyway -- her booty's looking fab! Sue is at ease on stage, and she breezed through the evening, singing classics including "From This Moment On" and "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars", and contemporary songs including "Almost Blue" and "Moondance", among others. All the while ENTERTAINING with stories, remembrances, and LAVISHING LOVE all over her audience. That is so key. She's good at it. Congratulations Sue Matsuki. I had a ball. Featuring Gregory Toroian, Arranger and Pianist, Skip Ward on Bass, David Silliman on Drums, and Kati Neiheisel and Maria Corsaro on backup vocals. David Sabella directed....congratulations.