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BWW Review: Jennifer Hudson Concert Is a Big-Voice Baptism for Dr. Phillips Center's New Steinmetz Hall

Holy moly, those vocals. Her stage presence? Divine.

BWW Review: Jennifer Hudson Concert Is a Big-Voice Baptism for Dr. Phillips Center's New Steinmetz Hall

There's an iconic moment in Whitney's "I Will Always Love," just before Houston hits her high notes and just after an insane saxophone solo, when the instruments go quiet and the Queen of the Night breathes in to blow us all away with an enormous "AND I."

When Jennifer Hudson sang it at Dr. Phillips Center on Saturday night, harkening back to her legendary performance of the same at the 54th Grammys, she braced for the "And I" but, overwhelmed, went with a "SIR! The way you played that HORN!" instead.

She was talking to Michael Scaglione, who had just torn his tenor saxophone into whatever brass becomes after a man has pushed the entirety of the 1990s out its mouth. It was a sax solo for the ages, christening the walls of the brand-new Steinmetz Hall with this-is-why-we-built-it energy.

In that moment, Ms. Hudson said what we were all thinking. But it's not just that she said it, or that she stopped her own song to do so. It's that she did it with a full symphony behind her, their bows in hand and their reeds in mouth mid-song.

This was no anomaly. All night long, Jennifer Hudson was commanding the stage and the symphony with an ease, a fluency, and an off-the-cuff control that set her apart from any Pops performer I've seen.

Ordinarily, in a celebrity Pops setting, a superstar is restrained by the rigors of symphonic logistics. Unlike the singer's own band, the orchestra is an entity all its own, appearing by contract. The players may not be familiar with the artist's songbook, and they look for cues from the maestro, not the mic stand. Their contributions are typically limited to that which has been strictly rehearsed. If the artist wants to free wheel, they'll need to do that with their own band when the symphony doesn't have a chart to follow.

Unless that artist is J Hud.

She stopped songs. She prolonged songs. She came in and out of them as she pleased. She punctuated lyrics with ad libs, like when she ended Aretha Franklin's "Respect" with an exasperated, "Y'all I have been in the house with two cats" and made it sound like that's how that song has always ended. She waved her hands in the air to ask the symphony to give her whatever she needed in the moment. And while no one could or would take anything away from Edwin Outwater's superb conducting (that's right, this was the Royal Philharhomic Orchestra, straight out of London), there is no doubt that the players took their cues from Hudson as often as from Outwater.

In other words, this was so much more than just Jennifer Hudson in concert. This was an evening by, with, and unmistakably of Jennifer Hudson, a masterful live performer who understands that what audiences really want - beyond the voice - is connection. And if her improvised exchanges with individual audience members throughout the evening are any indication, that's what she's really after too.

But make no mistake, the voice was there. It's a hell of a voice - a dumbfounding atom bomb of musicality as supreme in personality as it is pitch or power. When Jennifer Hudson sings live in the same room as you, you feel it in your chest the way you feel heartburn or nerve. It's the kind of voice you build a new building for, or at the very least refortify the shingles. Sure enough, she's only the second big-name artist to perform inside the stunning Steinmetz, designed to withstand and even amplify Category 5 talent like hers.

But it was also intimate, personable, and authentic in the way that only the best celebrity concerts are. Hudson even brought her friends along with her, including fellow season-three "American Idol" alumnus George Huff in the backing vocals and Rickey Minor as band leader on bass guitar. Frequently, she found herself lost in the moment, moved by the music or her memories of life in Orlando, where she worked as an aspiring singer in the region's hospitality and tourism industry.

Perhaps surprisingly, there was no Disney in the setlist - the show ran only about 90 minutes, part of a larger evening of festivities surrounding Steinmetz - but Broadway was well represented. As the lights went down, Hudson appeared on a corner of the stage, no mic in front of her, and opened with Annie's "Tomorrow" set only to piano. The closing note of that song invited the whole orchestra to launch into an overture from Dreamgirls, giving way to "One Night Only" in both its ballad and disco versions (I see you, bongos!) and then the song everyone is here for: "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."

Believe me, when she finally did go, everyone wished she hadn't. If the evening had a downside, it's that Hudson made it through less than a dozen songs, and only one among them was a Hudson original. Missing were popular items from the still-growing Hudson songbook - songs like "Spotlight," "Love You I Do," or "All Dressed in Love" from Sex and the City. But a night of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Leonard Cohen songs from one of the rare voices to do them justice is hardly anything to lament.

Orlando is fortunate to have Steinmetz Hall, an incredible performance space that ups the ante on Central Florida's cultural prowess. The town that took Jennifer Hudson to the limelight deserves nothing less. Let's hope she'll return here to film her first symphony concert special. An evening like this one demands to be preserved and shared.

Setlist

  1. Tomorrow
  2. One Night Only (medley of Ballad and Dance versions, with Dreamgirls overture as intro)
  3. And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going
  4. Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive
  5. This Bitter Earth
  6. Ain't No Way
  7. Respect
  8. I Will Always Love You
  9. Hallelujah
  10. Here I Am (Singing My Way Home)
  11. ORCHESTRA ONLY / EXIT MUSIC: And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going
  12. ENCORE: Nessun dorma

Note: Dr. Phillips Center requires all patrons and ushers to wear face masks in Steinmetz Hall. On stage, those symphony players who can wear masks while performing do so; other performers are unmasked.


What did you think of JENNIFER HUDSON at Dr. Phillips Center's new Steinmetz Hall? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.



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From This Author - Aaron Wallace