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BWW Review: NORM LEWIS AND THE NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA at Wolf Trap's Filene Center

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You still have time to catch the second performance, July 31

BWW Review: NORM LEWIS AND THE NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA at Wolf Trap's Filene Center
Norm Lewis (photo from NormLewis.com)

What could be more, well, normal than a night of Broadway standards, with orchestral accompaniment, at an outdoor summer venue? But what could be more abnormal these days than normality? Thus it was that a Wolf Trap audience Friday evening so enthusiastically embraced the norm, or rather the Norm - Norm Lewis with the National Symphony Orchestra.

The best part of this carefully calibrated, totally predictable 90 minutes of inviting stage hits? Nothing calamitous happened!

It was live. It was lovely. It was polished. And it let the audience forget about the delta variant, death, illness, fires, flood, drought, deranged insurrectionists, spiking homicide rates, racial strife, culture wars, inflation, Olympian twisties and heat stroke, and how intent we all are on hating each other these days.

Thus, by the time the encore, "What the World Needs Now," came along, the sappy "love, sweet love" chorus seemed almost avant-garde in a world turned on its head. The version called for the crowd to join in, but the crowd was understandably sparse. After all, even those dying to see Norm Lewis might not actually want to risk dying to see Norm Lewis. Unlikely for the vaccinated, but as I again strap on my mask in the aisles of the supermarket - sigh - I'm not feeling at all judgy about the super-cautious.

The crowd did what we could with our off-key crooning along and standing ovations. There really was a lot of love, sweet love for these incredibly talented and committed musicians amid the chirps, coos, buzzes, clicks, and rustles of the insects, birds, squirrels, and chipmunks at dusk. And love too for the park rangers directing traffic and crowds. For the food concession workers and ushers. So friendly. So helpful. So ready. The ritual of what we all took for granted until a year and a half ago felt strangely overwhelming, invaluable, Whitmanesque. You think I'm nuts, but go and tell me if I'm wrong.

In this context, so many lyricists' paradoxes, exaggerations, figures of speech take on weird contorted dimensions in the psyche. "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die," sang the charming baritone in the light blue summer suit in "Life Is," his opening number, from Kander and Ebb's Zorba.

Of course, the funny thing about Norm's norms is how, over a three-decade career, he's modestly shattered some of them - for instance, as the first Black Broadway Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber's blockbuster. (Although, as Lewis graciously noted, Robert Guillaume preceded him in that distinction on the West Coast, in Los Angeles.)

Lewis also earned a Tony nomination - he goofily had it, framed, on stage with him - as Porgy in a modernized version of Porgy and Bess. He offered "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" two ways, traditional style and then extra syncopated and punchy. (I lean toward Stephen Sondheim's view that messing with Gershwin is dicey, but if I could time-travel back a decade to the Cambridge, Mass. production Lewis was drawing from, that might well change my mind.)

The National Symphony Orchestra accompanied Lewis under the assured baton of the ensemble's pops conductor, Steven Reineke, another warm, friendly presence who also pleasantly surprised listeners with a singing cameo in the Les Miz section. (The dude's got pipes!) Featured on piano was Lewis's musical director, Joseph Joubert.

I last heard the NSO playing Mahler's Fifth at the Kennedy Center shortly before the pandemic. That was fabulous, and what a pleasure it was seeing them together again in summer open collars amid cooling fans in this more relaxed, but still precise, bright-toned modality. So many aural treats in these superb arrangements: crisp trap set and mallet percussion, rousing horns, and mellifluous clarinets in Les Miz; banjo in the Gershwin; nectarous strings, down-home ukulele, and a stirring oboe solo in a medley from Jesus Christ Superstar; and much more.

Lewis has an admirable range, stylistically and vocally (to be precise, the latter is F2 to A5, according to The Range Planet), with a head voice that transitions seamlessly into falsetto, as in the gentle rendering of the word "soar" at the end of "Music of the Night" from Phantom. His "Stars," from Les Miserables, had a tender vigilance to it; his "Waiting for Life" from Once on This Island was lilting; "The World Above" from Little Mermaid, commanding.

He is a master of the complicatedly simple physical gesture of song, the timing and tension of fists clenching, fingers spreading, arms rising, shoulders shrugging, all from a powerful physical and emotional center, like smoke rising from a volcano in the early phases of eruption.

This singer and actor's presence is affable and self-deprecating - he joked about the weight he's put on and blamed it on the Covid lockdown. "I used to be hot," he said winkingly, well knowing, surely, how charismatic he remains at age 58, and in fact using his maturity to excellent effect in his closer, "Being Alive," from Sondheim's Company, a number Lewis said he's been exploring for 40 years.

But what used to be a showoff piece at age 18 well suits the quiet existential marvels of upper middle age. In his introductory patter before the tune, Lewis tied it into his ambivalence about quarantining in New York City, relieved he didn't have the domestic tensions of being with anyone, but also longing for someone. "Someone you have to let in, / Someone whose feelings you spare, / Someone who, like it or not, / Will want you to share / A little, a lot."

For along with a gorgeous voice and a beguiling stage persona, the accomplished artist draws on that rarest, hard-earned asset: experience. And experiencing Lewis and the NSO was a welcome way to re-enter, however tentatively, the world of live concert performance.


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