BWW Review: NEW YEAR'S EVE TRIBUTE TO ARETHA FRANKLIN at Kennedy Center
Some of Aretha Franklin's greatest performances happened at the Kennedy Center - chief of which may have been a 2015 performance of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors that made Barack Obama shed a tear in the Presidential box.
Clips of some of Franklin's performances in the fabled D.C. hall, dating back to 1978, preceded a New Year's Eve tribute to the Queen of Soul at the Kennedy Center, electrifying the sold out crowd even as it set an impossible standard for the performers who would follow.
There were a couple marquee names involved in the salute - from Dionne Warwick to Michelle Williams, But mostly the tribute to Franklin, who died in 2018, featured a handful of names that didn't quite ring a bell, even if some of them did rise to the occasion.
The salute was under the direction of Luke Frazier and his American Pops Orchestra, who began with a symphonic "Respect" that certainly didn't have the impact of Franklin's 1967 signature chart-topper.
Then came Rayshun LaMarr, a D.C. finalist for "The Voice" season 14, doing "Chain of Fools." And while he had a commanding, soulful voice, the pops arrangement all but lost the snarling guitar that set up the Franklin hit.
An unexpected spark to the evening was Morgan James, a Broadway singer and occasional member of the Postmodern Jukebox who regularly records whole cover albums of classics. That she could handle "The House That Jack Built" and, later, "Baby I Love You" with some sass gave her a lot of credibility
Bria Skonberg had the bad luck of following James twice. Though she probably has a passable voice, it paled a bit after James' pizazz. Plus she carried around a trumpet that she played in solos which made her seem something of a novelty act.
Both of those women had costume changes between performances, but MILCK, the Los Angeles singer stayed in her ivory suit for "See Saw" and an especially slowed down "Ain't No Way."
It was a D.C. artist, Nova Payton, who brought down the house a couple of times - in a gospel medley and later the triumphant "Natural Woman." It was gospel that honed Franklin's sound growing up, and she often accompanied herself on gospel piano.
Indeed, she could conjure up fire with just the barest of a church rhythm section, as seen in the 2018 "Amazing Grace." Even her secular R&B was more propped by horns than strings, making me think that strings were not a natural accompaniment for the work of Lady Soul.
Then they played a longer C-SPAN clip of her singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" with a (prerecorded) symphonic backing from 2009, wow, she could surely transcend that as well (The clip led to a couple of other spontaneous ovations for those shown in the clip: Obama, but also Rep. John Lewis).
As diverse a crowd that had shown up for the holiday performance - some in tuxes, some in ski jackets - and from a variety of backgrounds, the American Pops Orchestra was all white, down to its backup singers. That seems unusual and unwarranted in contemporary D.C., but especially lacking in a show attempting to approximate soul. There would be no funk from this crew (and no reason to do an instrumental version of her take on "Bridge Over Troubled Water").
It seemed a waste to use so little of Williams as well. The onetime Destiny's Child member, who has managed her own solo career, could have performed more than she did, taking her turn for things like
"(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone." She had the skills to tackle the difficult range and the style pull it off.
Warwick's appearance was very brief but poignant. She recalled meeting Franklin in church when they were both 15, and sang a hymn she recalled her doing back then. "Never Grow Old." It was both the least famous song of the night and the quietest.
It's too bad Warwick, now 79, couldn't be coaxed to singing her own "I Say a Little Prayer," which Franklin also made a hit (it was left to Williams to do). Indeed, while Warwick stood among the artists for the finale of "You're All I Need to Get By" and "Think," she never felt moved to join in.
Running time: About 70 minutes.
Photo credit: Final curtain call. Photo by Roger Catlin.
"New Year's Eve at the Kennedy Center: A Tribute to Aretha Franklin" was held Dec. 31, 2019 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.