BWW Review: Kevin Smith Kirkwood Raises Spirits in CLASSIC WHITNEY - THE HOLIDAY LOVE EDITION at Joe's Pub
Whitney Houston allowed to come back from heaven for one night to do a Christmas concert? Yes, please! Ok, as a premise it's pretty slim, but who cares?! Kevin Smith Kirkwood onstage bringing Whitney to the people once more is the best Christmas present in town, because it isn't just a tribute show, and it isn't just a Christmas show, and it isn't just a drag show, it's all three and, somehow, a little bit more - and the public must know it because last night there was no room at the inn... that is to say, there was no room at Joe's Pub as more people than you thought possible filled the stage for CLASSIC WHITNEY - THE HOLIDAY LOVE EDITION. The theater was at capacity and for the entire show, patrons had their hands and phones in the air, clapping, filming, singing along, laughing and cheering as Mr. Kirkwood showed everyone just how extreme is his ability to recreate Ms. Houston. Is the voice JUST like Whitney's? No, but it's close enough - especially when you consider that this is a man doing the singing. Are the mannerisms just like Whitney's? YES. Yes, they are! Kevin Smith Kirkwood's devotion to Whitney Houston is showing so much that you ask yourself how MUCH time did this fellow spend watching videos of Whitney to get it right? How MUCH time did he spend in front of the mirror, making sure he had it perfect? If you take all those hours and add them up, you know he isn't being paid nearly enough for the feats of festivity he is bringing to every person, Houston fan or not, who has the privilege of seeing him perform. It's scary, that's how good he is.
CLASSIC WHITNEY - THE HOLIDAY LOVE EDITION is a slam-bang great night of entertainment, and it could have been otherwise because there is a lot of Christmas and a lot of god in the show - and not everyone is as into Christmas as the folks at Hallmark, or as into god as the people at the old Mark Hellinger Theater. If, however, a person is into Whitney Houston, the subject matter inside of the show doesn't matter, all that matters is how good KSK is and how much you are willing to commit to his impersonation of Whitney. An endorsement and a word of advice: he's that good, so give yourself permission to commit all the way.
The best thing about Kevin Smith Kirkwood's performance as Whitney Houston is that it is a completely honorable impression of the late, great Diva. No fun does he poke at our beloved Ms. Houston; Mr. Smith is interested in two things and two things only -- paying tribute to Whitney and entertaining people with that tribute. His portrayal of Whitney is sweet, kind, funny, friendly, loving, respectful, and remarkably accurate. His vocals are spot-on, even without having a voice like Whitney's, because KSK has a strong, powerful, beautiful voice - but nobody has a voice like Whitney. Still, he sounds just like her...enough for you to believe it's her for 80 minutes. Kirkwood's mannerisms, Martha Smith's costumes, Sabanah Styles' wigs, they are enough like Whitney's brand to carry the illusion forward, and they are flashy enough to be just a little bit campy. The cadence and the speech pattern, even the little ticks, are so much Whitney that you find yourself occasionally picking your jaw up off the table. Kirkwood's performance simply rings true in every aspect needed to make it work for him and for you, and it worked for all lucky enough to see last night's show. One of the most fun parts of the evening was turning your head around, taking your eyes off the stage, and looking around the room at the crowd, a mass of happiness and Christmas cheer.
The almost achingly entertaining show itself is thin on plot, but heavy on content, with songs from the Whitney Houston collection, including The Preacher's Wife and her Christmas album One Wish, and featuring many of her biggest pop hits, all sung by KSK as though his very life and that of the cast of thousands depended on it. Spoiler: if their lives HAD depended on Kirkwood's singing, they would all be safe from elimination. That cast of thousands, by the way, included the spectacular JW's Inspirational Singers, back up singers Kerry Flanagan, Nattalyee Randall and John Lucas, Juson Williams as Stevie Wonder, Natalie Joy Johnson as Judy Garland, and Emily McNamara as Mariah Carey. The band, brilliantly lead by Drew Wutke, consisted of Amy Griffiths, Derek Swink, Matt Scharfglass and Hajime Yoshida. CLASSIC WHITNEY - THE HOLIDAY LOVE EDITION was scripted by Kirkwood and directed by Ray DeMattis, both of whom should be commended for their wonderful work. However, if they are to be congratulated for the good, they must also take responsibility for the bad.
In their portrayals of Stevie Wonder and Mariah Carey, Juson Williams and Emily McNamara acquitted themselves very nicely of the vocal demands, performing on a level that matched Mr. Kirkwood's. They also managed to play these iconic artists with a fun whimsy that made their duets with Whitney thoroughly enjoyable and germane to the proceedings of the evening. Natalie Joy Johnson, however, made an unfortunate choice when she decided to enter from offstage as Judy Garland carrying a cocktail, stumbling, and slurring her speech. Her mannerisms, her speech pattern, nearly every aspect of her portrayal of Judy Garland was offensive. Until the moment she entered the stage, there had been nothing mean-spirited about the show. There were no jokes about Mariah's lipsynching or about Whitney's drug abuse, making out of place, entirely, the jokes about Judy's drinking. To begin with, it is neither amusing nor acceptable to make fun of someone with addiction problems. Furthermore, Ms. Garland still has family, and that family has friends - it cannot be known if someone with associations to the Garland/Luft/Minnelli families might have been at the play last night, to witness the sad attempt at humor at Ms. Garland's expense. And, finally: it's old. Everyone knows about Judy Garland's addiction issues - the horse is dead, and the beating can end. It's unfunny, it's ungenerous, and it's unkind; the only things that Ms. Johnson's performance last night accomplished was to leave a blight on an otherwise wonderful evening and to turn some audience members off to Natalie Joy Johnson, a shame for she has a reputation for being a gifted performer. Johnson, Kirkwood, and DeMattis all share in the sadness of this unfortunate choice.
Not wishing to give the wrong impression, it is important to be clear: I loved CLASSIC WHITNEY - THE HOLIDAY LOVE EDITION and have every intention of seeing the show next Christmas, as well as recommending it to any and everyone who loves Whitney Houston. Furthermore, I will make a point of following Kevin Smith Kirkwood and learning when he is performing, either as Whitney or as another character, so endearing is he and so overpowering is his talent. Mr. Kirkwood and CLASSIC WHITNEY - THE HOLIDAY LOVE EDITION may, well, turn out to be one of my favorite discoveries of 2019.
CLASSIC WHITNEY - THE HOLIDAY LOVE EDITION was a one night only performance at Joe's Pub.
Photos by Stephen Mosher