BWW Reviews: Tony Winner Jennifer Holliday Leads Dazzling BROADWAY UNDER THE STARS Concert
When you've been given the privilege to watch and, of course, listen to legendary Tony winner Jennifer Holliday sing live---in that signature inimitable style---it's practically akin to a religious experience. A big-voiced church choir wünderkind-turned-Broadway star, she can simultaneously caress and attack notes with the passionate fervor of a storyteller, an enviable feat so many of her peers, contemporaries, and subsequent protégés have tried to replicate but simply cannot. She is, to put it mildly, still one of the world's most treasured, gifted musical voices.
That powerhouse voice was certainly in beautiful, fine form last Saturday night, August 16, for the star-studded BROADWAY UNDER THE STARS, a talent-heavy, one-night-only concert showcase presented at the Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood by producer Chris Isaacson. (A portion of the proceeds from the concert benefited The Actors Fund).
Holliday served (rightly so) as the delicious, headlining dessert that capped off an impressive line-up of Broadway testosterone that included Erich Bergen (JERSEY BOYS on stage and film), Rogelio Douglas, Jr. (IN THE HEIGHTS, THE LITTLE MERMAID), Danny Gurwin (LITTLE WOMEN), and Tony nominee Chad Kimball (MEMPHIS). The highly entertaining evening---a pleasant mixture of amusing anecdotes and enthralling showtune performances---was hosted, appropriately enough, by Holliday's Tony nominated DREAMGIRLS co-star, Obba Babatundé.
Throughout the evening, musical accompaniment was provided by a hard-working ad-hoc band helmed splendidly by musical director/principal pianist Gerald Sternbach.
The amiable Babatundé---a true old school Broadway song-and-dance man that channeled both the kitsch cool of his mentor Sammy Davis Jr. and the razzle dazzle of Ben Vereen---kicked things off with an easy-going rendition of "Magic To Do" from PIPPIN, joined briefly by Douglas, Jr., Gurwin, and Kimball (curiously, Bergen didn't collaborate with his co-stars all evening). As a way to introduce each performer who took the stage to sing their own individual sets, Babatundé read each person's brief bio from "ancient" scrolls, as if making royal proclamations within this Greek-style outdoor amphitheater.
Up first in the roster of Broadway stars was the handsome Bergen, fresh off a magnificent turn as Bob Gaudio in Clint Eastwood's big-screen adaptation of the hit Tony winning musical JERSEY BOYS---a role, of course, he has also played multiple times on stage (prompting his version of "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You").
"Yes, that's right... I'm wearing sequined lapels," joked Bergen, flashing his confident, debonair smile.
Aside from Holliday's suite of songs in the second act, Bergen's song-and-gab cycle felt like the night's most tightly self-contained set of the bunch (he also sang the most number of songs in the show), in which the multi-hyphenate actor engaged the packed theater with cheeky comic asides while reminiscing about his career highlights, and then, of course, blowing the audience away with his smooth vocals.
He charmed the audience so much he even managed to get the audience to sing "White Christmas" with him---in the middle of August! I personally loved his take on "Easy To Love" a song lifted from his stint in the national tour of ANYTHING GOES. He even busted some MJ moves on "Ease On Down The Road" (he amused the audience by saying he learned about Dorothy and her pals from THE WIZ first---not THE WIZARD OF OZ).
Bergen was followed next by the mesmerizing Douglas, Jr., who got everyone roused by his riff-tastic "Early In The Morning" from FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE. Endearingly humble despite his obvious talent oozing out of every pore, Douglas surprised the audience by sharing the stage with his IN THE HEIGHTS co-star Janet Dacal to duet on the gorgeous "Sunrise." Later, he treated the audience to a brief beach party while singing "Under The Sea" from THE LITTLE MERMAID, accompanied by a crew of baby-faced dancers armed with beach balls.
Part of me really really wished Rogelio sang more songs.
Next up on the bill is Gurwin, who instantly won the audience over by walking up to his mic and joked... "now it's time for the whitest part of our show..." Even better, Gurwin---the most legit/classical sounding of the bunch---explained that his set is made up mostly of songs from Broadway shows he "didn't get," which he, of course, punctuated with feigned protest. After a rather lovely rendition of "Proud of Your Boy" (from ALADDIN) and an exquisite take on "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables" (from LES MIS, a show he claimed he repeatedly got rejected from), he finished his first act set with a stunning, stratospherically-belted mash-up of two songs from LITTLE WOMEN: "Take A Chance On Me" and "Astonishing." (Later, he offers up another sublime mash-up of "Falling Into You" and "Falling Slowly").
Finishing up the first act as the final featured performer was Kimball, whose adorkable, delightful demeanor made everyone smile. For his set, Kimball recalled some very funny anecdotes from his Broadway debut as Milky White (the Cow) in the 2002 revival of Stephen Sondheim's INTO THE WOODS (which made its pre-Broadway debut here in Los Angeles). He also understudied the role of Jack which prompted his terrific rendition of "Giants In The Sky." After a touching "What You'd Call A Dream" (from the baseball-themed musical DIAMONDS) his Southern twang came back out for the bluesy-belted "Music In My Soul" from MEMPHIS, the show that earned the actor a Tony nomination in 2009.
Meanwhile, for his part, Babatundé was an excellent master of ceremonies, even providing some unscripted improv to cover up some of the production's unplanned gaffes and technical difficulties (the impromptu modern dance routine he performed while there was a delay in Ms. Holliday's entrance certainly provided some delighted chuckles). In a cute surprise, actress Sally Struthers got up from her seat in the audience to honor and formally introduce the host, who also sang a few numbers himself... an emotionally heartfelt "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" and a divine "Mr. Bojangles"---both rendered to honor his mentor, Sammy Davis Jr.
After a much-anticipated intermission (the first act ran a music-packed hour and forty minutes), each of the men came back at the top of the second act to perform one number each before the evening's main event, Ms. Holliday, finally took the stage.
Though she glided towards the mic looking a bit timid but genuinely grateful for the rousing cheers, once she opened her mouth to sing, the vocal ferocity the world has come to know---sounding just as forceful as it has for decades---struck everyone instantly within euphoric earshot. And much like every Holliday show I've ever experienced in my lifetime, listening to her signature phrasing and powerful soulful riffing live and in the flesh is just...wow. Heavenly.
She admitted that she liked singing in outdoor venues such as the Ford Amphitheatre, particularly because the roof-less theater threw away any need for her to limit her vocal power.
"I don't have to worry about [my big voice] blowing the roof off of the place... 'cause there is no roof!"
Throughout her set, the notoriously press-shy and soft-spoken Holliday regaled the rapt audience with some little-known factoids about her life, including some honest disclosures of her career trajectories. The most fascinating anecdote is from her time just starting up in what would eventually become her defining role in DREAMGIRLS.
With very little acting experience prior to playing Effie White ("I went straight from the church house to the Broadway house..."), DREAMGIRLS director Michael Bennett suggested to the young, barely 20-year-old Ms. Holliday to study up on all movie musicals, and to pay particularly close attention to the oeuvre of the one and only Barbra Streisand. Her work in FUNNY GIRL, Holliday admitted during the concert, was a significant influence in how she approached Effie in DREAMGIRLS.
Later, she reflected on the challenges of sustaining a viable career in a post-DREAMGIRLS, post-R&B charts landscape---an environment able to celebrate her unique voice which fell somewhere in between the disparate worlds of musical theater and R&B. This dilemma prompted her to seek counsel from the (now) late Marvin Hamlisch who suggested to her that she would sound great doing classic standards backed by symphony orchestras.
"He said, 'You put together [a repertoire] of 40 minutes [of music], and I'll hire you'!"
Hamlisch's advice proved to be a good one---one that initiated a crash course in the classics and jazz standards, which eventually led to steady work with orchestras across the globe. This musical discovery also led to Holliday's latest release The Song Is You, a collection of gorgeous, symphony-backed jazz and R&B standards, which, of course, have been emotively "Jennifer-ized."
Though she felt the need to over-apologize for apparently tweaking the classics ("if you don't like it, just clap along and pretend you like it"), her beautiful renditions at the concert proved that even purists will absolutely love what she's done with them. Hearing her roar through "The Song Is You" (popularized by Frank Sinatra) makes you wonder why in the world she hasn't tackled jazz standards sooner. Her voice is tailor made for the genre!
More evidence came with her brilliant, jaw-dropping cover of Etta James' "At Last" and Hamlisch's "What I Did For Love" (from A CHORUS LINE), the latter of which takes an R&B quiet storm/slow-jam approach that made me blissfully rock out in my seat.
As expected, you couldn't have a Jennifer Holliday concert without a few songs from DREAMGIRLS, and, thankfully, she delivered two: the ballad-disco hybrid version of "One Night Only," and, of course, the song that inspired many a young musical theater dreamer---regardless of race, size, or even gender---to belt into their hairbrushes.
"People always ask me whether I'm tired of always singing this song," she began before her final number of the evening. "I tell them that I'm not. And that's a good thing because it's become, well, my signature song..."
"I mean... yes, [the movie] did upset me," she admitted with a hint of a sly smile. "But the big picture is that [because of the movie] a lot more young people sought me out." Thanks to places like YouTube, theater lovers today have researched and have obsessively re-watched her original take on the role. Another bonus: to then learn that the formerly heavier Holliday is now svelte and still around touring in venues across the world. Performing in front of an audience, it seems, is Holliday's indisputable proof.
"I'm here tonight to tell you... I'm not dead!"
And with the initial, familiar strikes of the piano, Holliday tackled "And I Am Telling You (I'm Not Going)" with the same emotional gravitas and power vocals that made so many sit up and weep 33 years ago. Gosh, I have to admit... listening to her sing this song still gives me goosebumps every time.
No surprise---she got a standing ovation. And a truly deserved one at that.
To see more photos from the event, click HERE.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos courtesy of Ford Theatres & Chris Isaacson Presents.
Visit www.ChrisIsaacsonPresents.com for more info on upcoming performances and concerts.