Review: AN EVENING WITH NORM LEWIS at Kennedy Center

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The latest offering in the Renée Fleming VOICES concert series, Broadway and local musical theater favorite Norm Lewis returned to the Kennedy Center for an evening of songs and stories in celebration of Black History Month. Offering a retrospective of his theater career to date and more, he included songs he's sung in shows on Broadway or beyond, songs that he coveted from his fellow castmates, and a few others made famous by singers he admires. Although it's difficult to identify favorites in a 90-minute plus concert filled with some of the most engaging and powerful vocals you're apt to hear in musical theater today, several selections in each category stood out the most to me.

Of the "songs I've sung in shows on Broadway or beyond" category, Norm's take on the Gershwin classic "I Got Plenty of Nothing'" from Porgy and Bess was probably the most unique of the evening. Ms. Diane Paulus' 2012 Broadway production represented a departure from the way the show is usually presented in opera houses across the country - a fact that spurred a bit of controversy, and even a letter from none other than Mr. Stephen Sondheim. Norm, who played Porgy in that production, more than satisfied the purist and the "out of the box" audience member with a rendition that mixed the "legit" (at the beginning) with the "modern" (at the end). Playfully displaying his Tony Award nomination certificate in the middle, no matter your taste, the entire song was impeccably sung.

Other highlights in this category included "Stars" from Les Misérables (oh that rich baritone voice!), "Music of the Night" from The Phantom of the Opera, and - for something entirely different - "Ya Got Trouble" from The Music Man. Local theatergoers like myself were also delighted he recalled the first time he played Sweeney Todd at Signature Theatre's old garage space in 1999 by singing "My Friends" complete with razor in hand. While I was personally disappointed that he didn't include a song from Side Show, it was hard to be upset for long because of the quality of the songs he did sing and the way he candidly shared his story about breaking down barriers on Broadway.

When it came to the category of "songs I wished I sang," Norm showed he is nothing if not versatile. Whether it was something unexpected like his energetic take on "Waiting for Life" from Once on This Island or his emotionally rich rendition of "Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables, he nailed each one. I tend to think "Bring Him Home" is overdone in concerts such as these, but all was forgiven in this case because it was so wonderfully sung.

Norm also shared a few selections made famous by singers he admires, including "Misty" (Johnny Mathis) and "I Wonder as I Wander" (Jessye Norman), which again emphasized his versatility as a performer. Other highlights included a medley of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (also known as the Negro National Anthem) and "The Impossible Dream" (Man of La Mancha).

Backed by the DC area's own incredible pianist Howard Breitbart on piano, Perry Cavari on drums, and Dylan Shamat on bass, Norm impressed from beginning to end, making the trip to the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater well worth the trip.

Running Time: One hour and forty minutes with no intermission.

Norm Lewis played the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on February 29, 2020. For tickets to other concerts in the Renée Fleming VOICES series, click here.

Photo: Courtesy of the Kennedy Center website.


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