THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
KT Sullivan and Karen Kohler: Vienna to Weimar
The Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel, 20 Sherwood St, London W1F 7ED
Until October 26, 2013
KT Sullivan is a different kind of cabaret star. Possessor of a shimmering soprano voice, she focuses on material, inevitably from the first half of the last century and of a more antique nature, which plays to her strengths, leaving the more jazzy or singer/songwriter material to others.
Her supreme interpretative ability has been clear in her performances and recordings of the songs of, say, Jerome Kern or Dietz and Schwartz and here she goes further back. Like the best cabaret artistes she can take a moth-eaten ballad of yesteryear and make it sound as fresh as the day it was honed. Her exquisite comic timing is a joy to behold and her effervescent performances here include vamping up Ich Bin Ein Vamp or the jaded ennui of Richard Whiting's I Couldn't Be Annoyed or an ode to Attila the Hun – "a cute little brute who knows how to shoot".
With such a gift for period numbers it was fortunate that she landed on the idea of joining up with the German-born New York cabaret star Karen Kohler to produce a show which straddles Viennese operetta (Lehar and Strauss) and the cabaret music of 1930's Berlin (Hollaender, Weill, Spoliansky). Berlin after all was the font from which this art form has sprung and there is no better devotee or historian of it than Kohler.
In this show they blend their voices and feminine sensibilities to convey a range of emotions from the winsome operetta heroine to the more larky and edgy Berlin provocateurs. Performing with and without mics it's a masterclass in cabaret. With a scurrilous wit this show also explores the shocking sexual politics of the time. Chuck All the Men Out of the Reichstag is a feminist call to arms originally performed by a "notorious lesbian" performer of the time and Lila-Lied is an incredibly powerful anthem for the burgeoning queer movement which, of course, got swiftly stamped out. With a striking blonde mane, Kohler is a stunner in a tail suit which contrasts neatly with the ladylike Sullivan. The composer who figures most is Friedrich Hollaender and his Muenchhausen and I Don't Know to Whom I Belong are both exquisite paeans to the dream of the Weimar republic. Later on Sullivan brings the house down with an updating of Lili Marlene using the 1940 lyrics which explicitly condemn Hitler, blending it into the heartbreaking Ruins of Berlin.
The 90 minute show, which has supreme piano accompaniment by Jed Distler, perfectly balances the serious and the froth and K T Sullivan, glass of champagne in hand, works the room like a great hostess delivering such sachertorte numbers as The Laughing Song or Meine Lippen Sie Kuessen So Heiss (My lips they kiss so hot!). What a title!
They do jump forward in time for one song and Kohler's interpretation of Leonard Cohen's Take This Waltz is perhaps the highlight.
KT Sullivan and Karen Kohler are in London as part of the London Festival of Cabaret.