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BWW Review: A TIME TO SING: AN EVENING WITH RENEE FLEMING AND VANESSA WILLIAMS at The Kennedy Center

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With just 40 people in the audience, it was mostly a streaming event

BWW Review: A TIME TO SING: AN EVENING WITH RENEE FLEMING AND VANESSA WILLIAMS at The Kennedy Center

If you were planning the first in-person performance in the Kennedy Center in six months, a kind of historic cultural awakening after the darkness of the pandemic lockdown, you couldn't go wrong with a double bill of Renée Fleming and Vanessa Williams.

The opera diva and the glamorous pop singer and actress, harmonizing and soloing on well-chosen tunes in front of a handful of musicians would represent a triumphant return to the long unused stages there - truly "A Time to Sing," as the hour-long cabaret show was optimistically titled.

But the forward-looking concert at the Kennedy Center Saturday, coming the same week that the Metropolitan Opera cancelling its entire 2020-21 season, seemed only premature.

The two, in their spangly blue gowns, weren't on the Opera House stage at all, but a makeshift 30 x 24-foot platform built over the the front section of seats. Instead of facing the 2,300 red-cushioned seats and boxes of the normally filled Opera House, they faced the stage, where an invited audience of just 40 were temperature-checked, escorted in through the stage loading doors and sat in distanced folding chairs across the boards.

It looked less like a gala homecoming performance than a dress rehearsal for select patrons (their way of saying, no, you won't be seeing "Hamilton" this year, but what are you going to do?). Everyone else could watch the streaming version (for a fee). And if the internet cooperated.

The live setup aligned with new rules from the mayor's office issued just the day before, setting up a pilot program for six D.C. venues that will be allowed to open under a set of controlled rules. Besides the Kennedy Center it includes City Winery, GALA Hispanic Theatre, Pearl Street Warehouse, The Hamilton and Union Stage.

Cleaning and masks are part of the procedures, but all the performances are limited to just 50 people total - including performers and staff. What's more, singers must stand at least 30 feet from the audience (20 feet otherwise) and be six feet apart from one another.

That made for some odd staging between the two women who marched past one another but never touched. Bandleader Rob Mathes hunched over his piano without a mask, but every other musician on stage wore a black mask as part of their formal attire.

Given the extreme restrictions, the two women contrived a modest set of songs (over wine in Zoom calls, they said) that set the tone with the easy, Latin-tinged message song from Sting, "Fragile," and a similar vibe in Chuck Mangione's "Land of Make Believe."

The major theme of the show wasn't as much the state of the world as it was reflective of their careers, with each doing a song as if in an audition, and dedicating songs to their raising children while growing their careers, including Williams' 1994 hit "The Sweetest Days," and Steven Sondheim's "No One is Alone / Children Will Listen" from "Into the Woods." Things were even more directly autobiographical in the original song written for them, "The Diva," by Andrew Lippa.

Williams saved her No. 1 "Save the Best for Last," of course, for her last performance (so "Pocahontas" fans awaiting "Colors of the Wind" were disappointed).

Fleming ended the evening with a "Over the Rainbow," which, in her strident, operatic tones, had the same intent of Kate Smith rallying Americans in 1938 with "God Bless America."

Fleming chose few classical selections, besides Benjamin Britten's "Salley Gardens" there was Antonín Dvořák's "Song to the Moon," from Act I of "Rusalka." In it, her voice was rich and controlled and would have been even more thrilling live. That kind of power didn't serve her other choices, such as Joni Mitchell's usually more delicate "Both Sides Now."

She was the right person to co-star in the concert, though, having emerged as something of an ambassador of the Kennedy Center, after serving as artistic advisor and coordinating its American Voices festival.

Both she and Williams, at 61 and 57 respectively, looked and mostly sounded at the top of their games. Even if the venue seemed sparse, unready and with the thousands of empty seats, a little sad.

As for the home streaming presentation, it was mostly blandly conventional, with constantly panning cameras. Then again, it was hard to frame the two women well since they had to keep their recommended distances.

Still, the performance is being prepared for online replay for pandemic shut-ins who couldn't make the live stream.

Maybe the two will come back when people can really fill the seats and it may really be "A Time to Sing."

Running time: One hour flat.

Photo credit: Renée Fleming and Vanessa Williams in "A Time to Sing." Photo by Scott Suchman.

"A Time to Sing: An Evening with Renée Fleming and Vanessa Williams," presented Sept. 26 at the Kennedy Center is available . A streaming version of the concert will be available for digital access through 2020 online.



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From This Author Roger Catlin