Kim Sutton: Live to Tell My Life: Madonna’s Songs

| March 11, 2017

Kim Sutton

Live to Tell: My Life, Madonna’s Songs

Laurie Beechman Theatre, NYC, March 5, 2017

Reviewed by Victoria Ordin for Cabaret Scenes


Kim Sutton
Photo: Tess Steinkolk

People often say that cabaret is a big tent, but with the 32nd Bistro Awards fast approaching, it’s worth pausing to consider what that means. Cabaret is a form of storytelling that combines singing and speech, whether tightly scripted or almost entirely ad libbed. Some shows are more like stand-up comedy with musical interludes, while other shows privilege the singing of a lifelong artist with formal training (be it in opera, musical theater, or jazz). Some cabaret performers are in the first instance actors, who have come to music late in life. Still others have not worked professionally in the arts, yet have a passion for music and a story to share.

The latter describes Kim Sutton, a Navy veteran, businesswoman, mother, marathoner, kick-boxer, and most of all, survivor. Three brain surgeries later, Sutton—whose Whenever I Call You Friend (with Kim Grogg) won the 2016 MAC Award for best performance by a duo or group—is back with Live to Tell: My Life, Madonna’s Songs. Billed as “a theatrical event” conceived by director Lennie Watts and Musical Director Steven Ray Watkins (one of the best in the business), the show includes portions of no fewer than 47 Madonna songs. Think of it as a medley-on-meth.

Unlike many in the audience, I am smack dab in the middle of Generation X. I grew up with Madonna. I have vivid recollections of buying (or dual cassette-dubbing) Madonna and True Blue and taking the bus to Westwood in junior high to see the film Desperately Seeking Susan. The grim but brilliant At Close Range (which featured the hit single after which Sutton names her show, “Live to Tell”) left my girlfriend and me half-comatose in 8th grade. I even saw Who’s That Girl, a bad-good movie with an underrated soundtrack, first-run. Like a Prayer was senior year of high school, Dick Tracy and A League of Their Own college, and Ray of Light and Music, graduate school.

The concept of a “Madonna Songbook” is therefore not strange to me. The queen of reinvention (or in literary terms, “self-fashioning”) Madonna has been a force in music since the early 1980s. Sutton’s life trajectory could not be more different from mine, yet, like me, she can plot her life alongside Madonna’s ouevre.

That’s what great artists do: they tap into the emotional lives of people with little else in common and thereby create shared experience. Coincidentally, I exchanged messagea en route to the show from an “over 30,” saying I was off to review this show because, unlike many of my colleagues, I was “in the Madonna generation.” His reply: “Everyone is in the Madonna generation, in my opinion.”

Madonna co-wrote 40 of the 47 songs in Sutton’s show, which serves as a useful reminder that Madonna did more than perform music; she created it. A notorious control freak, she oversaw every aspect of her albums and tours, including the dancing, which was integral to her music. Sutton “gets” this, which is why she called on three exceptional singers, who also dance, to back her up: Derek Staranowski, Paul Pilez, and Ashton Michael Corey. The first two have appeared on Broadway or in national touring companies of Broadway shows. Corey, a recent graduate of Manhattan Marymount College, did a fine job choreographing the ambitious, fast-paced show.

The Broadway-caliber trio, along with the top-notch playing of the band led by Watkins (Don Kelly on drums, Matt Scharfglass on bass, and Pilez on the cajon) more than compensated for Sutton’s vocal deficiencies. Watkins’ arrangements are, with few exceptions, perfect. This is no small feat when you consider the range of genres here: dance, rock, pop, musical theater. He doesn’t paper over these differences, yet the show feels musically coherent.

Sutton, Watkins, and Watts were right to organize songs by theme (rather than chronology). The high points, vocally, were “In This Life,” “American Life” and “Ray of Light,” “Dear Jessie”/”Words”/”Sorry, Oh Father”/”4 Minutes” packed an emotional punch, while “You’ll See”/”Promise to Try”/”I’ll Remember”/”Playground” was the best-executed stretch overall.

The most clear connection between Sutton’s story and Madonna’s music comes at the end of the show, when she enacts her neurological ordeal. One could not help weeping when she thanked the members of her Mount Sinai team of neurologists and neurosurgeons in attendance.

Inspiration doesn’t always come from a display of raw talent. Sutton, according to the program, “came to cabaret by way of her bucket list.” She’s surrounded herself with phenomenal talent and not only “lived to tell” but lived to entertain us with an imperfect, but heartfelt, show.

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Category: Cabaret Reviews, New York City, New York City Cabaret Reviews, Regional

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