Norm Lewis: Who Am I?
Cabaret Review by Marilyn Lester
If you are what you eat, says Norm Lewis, you are also what you sing – and so answering his own question, commenced to deliver a gratifying and varied program of self-defining musical numbers. The evening, part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, unfolded in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room, a stunning venue perfectly fitted to Lewis’ warm, accessible style. Intimacy and affability were further enhanced by the tieless, open-necked attire of the singer and his three sidemen.
Bouncing on to the stage with an energetic arrangement of the Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newley “Once In A Lifetime,” Lewis segued neatly into “Misty,” the Johnny Mathis classic by Erroll Garner and Johnny Burke. Mathis was a major influence, Lewis discloses, as was Tony Bennett (curiously, though, there was no “tribute” song to Bennett, nor did Lewis perform anything from his current Broadway turn as the Phantom of the Opera). Johnny Mathis was also indirectly feted again in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” the Lerner and Loewe classic, arranged in a pleasing, fresh Mathis-like pop-blues style.
The William Davis, Donald Wolf “Azure-Te,” a tune most closely associated with Nat King Cole, was sensitively sung, while John Davenport and Eddie Cooley’s “Fever,” the huge Peggy Lee hit, was arranged in an even, direct and alluring musical through-line. Lewis’ delivery on this number is a prime example of how singers who are also actors can transmute and elevate a tune: Lewis is not only a superb singer, he’s a storyteller preeminent.
Taking very frequent sips of water throughout, it was evident Lewis was easing vocal strain. With a catch in his throat every so often, he gamely dealt with it, using a few vocal tricks to compensate. That being said, Lewis on a bad day is head and shoulders over many performers on their best days. His rich baritone easily tackles upper ranges, moving from chest to head voices with command of the mix; his musicality and phrasing are seldom off the mark. For “I’ve Got Plenty O’ Nuttin” from his turn as Porgy in the 2011 revival of the DuBose Heyward, George and Ira Gershwin “Porgy and Bess,” he delved deep into his chest voice to bring it home. While later in the program, he demonstrated head voice mastery with Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet.”
A gender-bender came in the form of a guest appearance by Broadway tenor, Hugh Panaro. Both actors starred in the original mounting of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell’s “Side Show” (the mention of which got a big hand from the audience). Lewis and Panaro, as Daisy and Violet respectively, sang “I Will Never Leave You,” with a very light touch of comedy and a good deal of sincerity. Broadway was also represented with Boubill, Schoenberg and Kretzmer’s “Les Miserables,” with Lewis reprising Javert and “Stars,” while Sondheim’s “Company” was acknowledged with “Marry Me A Little,” and Jerry Herman and “Hello Dolly” with “Before The Parade Passes By.”
The spiritual side of Norm Lewis closed out the evening, with the song that he credits as “setting his foundation:” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and a stirring a cappella rendition of James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (the “Negro National Anthem”).
With guests Pastor Bobby Lewis (a recently discovered cousin!) and the Bobby Lewis ensemble, Lewis performed “Take Me Back” (a tribute to the recently deceased gospel master Andraé Edward Crouch) and “Family” from Krieger and Ryan’s “Dreamgirls.”
Ending as it began, with Leslie Bricusse (with Cyril Ormadel and an indirect nod to Tony Bennett), Lewis sang “If I Ruled The World” as his wish for all. The encore, “No One Is Alone,” from Sondheim’s “Into The Woods,” ended a thoroughly enjoyable evening with its message of togetherness. Kudos to director Richard Jay-Alexander, for smart staging and the perfect ratio of meaningful text to musical numbers. Music direction and piano by Joseph Joubert expertly served the man in the spotlight. George Farmer provided crackerjack bass and guitar background, and Perry Cavari on drums proved to be a magician with a bagful of percussive “tricks” that added euphonic depth without being intrusive.
Norm Lewis: Who Am I?, Lincoln Center’s American Songbook, The Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, January 29 at 7:30 and 9:30 pm.
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, NY 10023
*Photos: Maryann Lopinto