BWW Review: Kevin Smith Kirkwood Embodies Whitney Houston In Dazzling CLASSIC WHITNEY: ALIVE! at Joe's Pub
Arriving on stage in a tear-away USA tracksuit to wow the crowd with "The Star-Spangled Banner," Kevin Smith Kirkwood looked every bit the part of Whitney Houston in the return of CLASSIC WHITNEY: ALIVE! at Joe's Pub on August 31.
But as everyone knows, a diva is more than just clothes (although the jumpsuit underneath was admittedly stunning as well). In less adept hands, the show's concept--- that Houston came down on a cloud for a repeat performance--- might have felt awkward or, worse, exploitative. Fortunately, Kirkwood, who is no stranger to glam and larger-than-life performers following his run in KINKY BOOTS, truly embodied the late icon on every level. Opening the show, he addressed the audience with a coy, "Ladies and gentlemen, it's so good to be back."
That's not to say Kirkwood shied away from the darker aspects of Whitney's legacy. Here and there, he peppered in jokes, including one about Whitney "getting her ghost on" for the night, and the lyrics to "Don't Cry" prove eerily prescient today ("No one is the blame / My death was meant to be").
However, Kirkwood's Whitney focused on "the music and the good times" and, in doing so, successfully sidestepped anything even remotely resembling parody.
Clearly not a casual fan of Houston's, Kirkwood showed a fine eye for detail, perfectly replicating the legend's monologue about visiting South Africa before launching into a sensational rendition of "Home."
Ever the entertainer, "Whitney" brought some special guests along as well. Her mother, Cissy Houston, and brother, Gary Houston---played by Ashanti J'Aria and Will T. Travis, respectively---joined her early on in the show. Together, they performed a stunning recreation of the trio's performance of the gospel song "Wonderful Counselor" at the 1988 American Music Awards.
Partway through the show, Kirkwood left the stage for a costume change, paving the way for one of the night's most comedic moments. The band---comprised of Matt Scharfglass on bass, Ben Natti on guitar, Kenny Hildebrandt on drums, Amy Griffiths on sax and musical director Drew Wutke on the keys---kept things going in his absence.
That's when Nick Rashaad Burroughs popped up to recreate the truly one-of-a-kind dance number Bobby Brown performed while Houston sang "Mr. Bojangles" at Sammy Davis, Jr.'s 60th Anniversary Celebration. Dressed just like Brown in an unbuttoned, satiny yellow shirt (and nothing underneath), Burroughs expertly popped and locked all over the stage--- and on the floor of it. The sensuality of his dancing was only mildly outpaced by the cartoonish exuberance of it all, in a way that was so perfectly, well, Bobby.
While Burroughs danced his heart out, Kerry Flanagan did far more than keeping Kirkwood's seat warm, belting out her soulful interpretation of "Mr. Bojangles," playing the role of Bette Sussman, who toured with Houston for years.
Kirwood, in awe of Burroughs's dance skills, returned to the stage to serenade "Bobby" for his efforts. His medley of "I Loves You Porgy" (PORGY AND BESS) "And I Am Telling You" (DREAMGIRLS), and Houston's own "I Have Nothing," the same she performed at the 1994 American Music Awards, earned him a partial standing ovation, though the best was yet to come.
Nothing could top his thrilling take on "I Will Always Love You." Even if it had ended in disaster, opening one of the most vocally challenging songs imaginable a cappella is the definition of gutsy. But Kirkwood came through each step of the way, earning every bit of the standing ovation he received.
"I Will Always Love You" also provided one of the most meta moments of the show, with "Bobby" dutifully peeking out from behind the curtain backstage, waiting to give "Whitney" a sip of water after hitting that note. (Yes, you know the one.)
Another standout was Kirkwood's cover of "Queen of the Night," taking the CJ Mackintosh edit and turning it up to 11 to give us a side of Houston we didn't see often: the full-blown disco diva.
Conversely, the way the show whipped through two of Houston's biggest singles, "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" and "How Will I Know," at the top wasn't entirely satisfying. To fully get their due, the two up tempo versions of iconic tracks may have worked better with a little distance between them.
Fortunately, Kirkwood resurrected the latter for his closing number, bringing down the house with a "mega-mix" that also featured "I'm Every Woman" and "It's Not Right But It's Okay." By that point, the audience had fully succumbed to both the music and his magnetic performance, not just standing but dancing and singing along to that final medley.
Despite her insistence that she was "every woman," truthfully, Whitney Houston was never America's most inviting pop queen. Yet Kirkwood's good-natured performance in CLASSIC WHITNEY: ALIVE! delivered Whitney at her best and, in some ways, possibly even better than we remember.