BWW Reviews: ALYSHA UMPHRESS Ignites Signature Theatre in Solo Cabaret
Alysha Umphress, with several Broadway credits under her belt (American Idiot, On a Clear Day you Can See Forever, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Bring it On), made a splash at the Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre this past season with her performance of Cee Cee Bloom in the world premiere of a screen-to-stage adaptation of Beaches. Impressed by her vocals in American Idiot and with a love for new musicals, I trekked to Signature to see her in Beaches and came away enormously impressed, not only due to her considerable vocal talents and comedic timing, but because she thankfully did not seem to be impersonating Bette Midler who originated the role on screen. This weekend, she returned to Signature to wow local audiences again with her powerful voice, but this time in a solo cabaret as part of the ongoing Sizzlin' Summer Nights cabaret series.
Starting off strong on Jeff Blumenkrantz's "Celebrate," accompanied by her musical director Adam Wachter on piano, the personable and highly versatile Umphress showed her enviable ability to engage an audience with a song at the first syllable. While every song from there on out was sung exquisitely well - interspersed with charming stories about her climb up the ladder in the NYC musical theatre scene - a few stood out as being among the most memorable.
First and foremost was her original jazz-infused rendition of Green Day's "Holiday." While in the theatrical production this number is full out angst-ridden pop/punk rock, this new arrangement (created with recent Tony nominee for Violet and fellow American Idiot cast member Joshua Henry) was something entirely different and unique. Rendering the familiar tune almost unrecognizable, but in a good way, Umphress' intuitive vocal choices and easy transitions from one beautiful note to another were a solid match for this gem of a sophisticated arrangement. Another jazz tune, "Lush Life," was also exquisitely song. Her palpable rich emotions mixed with a ridiculous amount of vocal control made that one another highlight to be sure.
Umphress also showcased her ability to tackle ballads. Whether the iconic "Wind Beneath My Wings" (Silbar/Henley), Lane/Lerner's "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)," or William Finn's "Anytime (I Am There)" (Elegies) she sung them flawlessly. I happened to see the revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever during its very brief Broadway run several years ago so this number brought back some fond memories of the wonderful music in that show. Jessie Mueller, whom Umphress understudied, was brilliant in the role, but Umphress' rendition of this song is just as strong. I also appreciated the subtle personal touches she gave to "Anytime (I Am There)." Any cabaret featuring William Finn's music is always a good thing in my book.
To complement the fun stories about her life in New York City - usually starting with "and then my agent called..." - much to my glee, Umphress also took a chance on some fun numbers that might not be as well known to local musical theatre aficionados. Following a disclosure that she's dated more than her fair share of Jewish men, she took on Nikko Benson's "I Could Be Jewish For You." I had not heard this song before, but I was glad she introduced it to me because it has a catchy melody and the lyrics are so, so, so on-point (speaking from personal experience). Her musical comedy skills were put to good use.
Other standout vocal moments came in the form of Queen's "Somebody to Love." To say that the girl can belt and do so without screeching unpleasantly is an understatement. The supported rich vocals combined with attention to the lyrics provided a masterclass on how this song should be done by contemporary young singers. An encore of the familiar "Over the Rainbow" (Arlen/Harburgh) made me forget that I find the song too overdone in cabaret settings because it was sung so well and was so heartfelt.
Many times with young singers, we're treated to a slew of known songs that are interpreted reasonably well and obviously selected because the singer likes to sing them. While it was clear Ms. Umphress had an affinity for these songs, I appreciated that the ones she selected showcased all dimensions of her voice and her understanding of a variety of music styles. The well-structured cabaret provided insight into her life and her comfortable, natural stage presence made the evening all that more inviting and enjoyable.
Signature, please bring her back again, but in the meantime I look forward to seeing her as Hildy in the revival of Bernstein, Comden and Green's On the Town this fall on Broadway. The snippet she provided of "I Can Cook Too" indicates it's going to be one to see.
Alysha Umphress performed two cabarets at Signature Theatre - 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA - on July 12. This review covers the 7 PM performance. For a list of upcoming cabarets in the ongoing festival, as well as ticket information, consult the Signature Theatre website.
Photo/Graphic: Courtesy of Signature Theatre website.