BWW Review: Nicole Henry Brings Star Power to I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY: THE MUSIC OF WHITNEY HOUSTON at 54 Below
There was a fire at 54 Below this week. It was caused by Nicole Henry, who set the place ablaze with her electrifying performance in her new show I Wanna Dance With Somebody: The Music of Whitney Houston. Gumption is the order of the day when a singer takes on one of the greatest singers of all time, and gumption, Ms. Henry's got. And then some.
Beginning the evening with a dramatic entrance worthy of a diva, Ms. Henry takes the audience by the hand, immediately making them aware that this is a happening, this is something special. Happy to be taken by that hand, her willing charges go with her anywhere she wishes on this night of joyful celebration, vocal supremacy and storytelling that ranges from cheeky to poignant. This isn't just a tribute to Whitney Houston, it's a tribute to everyone who gained a little strength listening to her music, because there is not one person who hasn't been affected by at least one Whitney Houston performance in their life, a fact made obvious by the sold out crowd singing along (at times), dying to dance (most of the time), some crying a little and some with hands up in the air to Jesus. During this 70-ish minute concert it became clear that the human race has about five things in common: sleep, sustenance, air, family and Whitney Houston. Moving and endearing was the vocal response when guests recognized they were about to hear their own Whitney Houston song, and though Whitney was in the room, the diva on the stage was Nicole Henry, and nobody forgot it. No impressionist here, Nicole Henry is a diva in her own right, a dedicated original, happy to bring another original to her audience for the night, doubling down on the Diva Factor.
Divas seem to be a specialty for director Will Nunziata. Recently referred to as "The Diva Whisperer", Nunziata has a knack for knowing how to write for women, how best to highlight their strength and individuality, and how to draw their audience to them. In much the same way as Jack Cole choreographed for Marilyn Monroe and Vincente Minnelli lit Judy Garland, Mr. Nunziata takes a careful look at the actress in question, carefully weighs the options and possibilities, and when the time and idea are right, he creates a setting around a gem that will spark an instantaneous reaction of love from an audience. With I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Will Nunziata has given Nicole Henry carte blanche to play the diva card, while giving her fun little bits of physical comedy that prove she doesn't take herself seriously, and permission to fangirl over her idol, just like her audience did when they were watching the videos of "I'm Your Baby Tonight" to learn the choreography or plunking down their seven dollars to see The Bodyguard for the third time. Henry should count herself lucky that Nunziata has created so outstanding a script and directed her to so accessible a performance.
Covering Houston's career from the hit that started it all, "Saving All My Love For You" to her later r&b hits, touching on her appearance in the Disney movie Cinderella and showcasing her dance hits, Ms. Henry takes her audience on her own personal journey, explaining what Whitney's music meant to her as a young girl, how the legendary singer inspired her own singing career, giving her strength and a beacon of light to lead the way in life. Henry uses Houston's music to orchestrate events taking place in her teenage and college years, expertly, mashing up music with memoir. And, oh, the stories. With exquisite comic timing, proficient facial expressiveness, and an abundance of sass, Nicole Henry cracks wise about school plays and college romances before turning to the subjects of church and finding love, with absolute confidence and stature. Listening to Ms. Henry talk about how this celebrity traveled with her through life, will remind each guest at her show of the artist who has been their constant companion through their own life. The universality of the artist/adherent relationship definitely pervades the air during this evening that, at times, feels like a Sunday morning in church... with sequins.
Supported by the incredible Eugene Gwozdz (music direction and piano), bassist Richie Goods, drummer Mark McLean and singers extraordinaire Dani Apple, Clayton Bryant, and Marissa Rosen, Nicole Henry fills the room at 54 Below with musical marvels one might, more regularly, discover within the walls of Madison Square Garden - leading her audience to deliver unto these master musicians multiple ovations throughout a night filled with more than just dancing in chairs, singing along and laughing uproariously. This night was filled with electricity, excitement and elation - because this night out gave this audience two divas for the price of one, two divas to love. Houston and Henry are finally together, at long last, and hopefully forever.
Photos by Stephen Mosher