Sunday, October 23, 2011

cabaret review Leslie Uggams Uptown/Downtown - NJPAC October 22

Leslie Uggams might be a name that is not that well known to younger theatre audiences today but she has had a vast and amazing career in theatre, tv and film which included winning a Tony when she was only 24.

We've seen Uggams perform three times before, twice in theatre productions - as the lead role in Call Me Madam at the Paper Mill Playhouse, co-starring with James Earl Jones on Broadway in On Golden Pond and many years ago she performed in a concert with Ben Vereen we had the pleasure to see.  Last night we saw her perform her cabaret show "Uptown/Downtown" at the NJPAC's Chase Room.  This show tracks Uggams' early years from living and performing in "Uptown" Manhattan to coming "Downtown" to Broadway.  The evening was a slightly abbreviated version of a two act production of this show that she has performed in a few theatres around the country.  After seeing her perform the hour and 10 minute version of the show I'm hoping I get a chance to see the two act longer version one day soon.

At 68 her voice is still exceptionally strong and clear with very little loss of the luster or the ability to hold notes for an extended period.  She might move a little slower than she did in the past, but the voice isn't tarnished at all.  She also brings an amazing amount of joy and love to the material that flows out to the audience. 

Uggams talked about her early years winning a talent contest that got her to appear as a regular at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. "On The Sunny Side of the Street" was the song that won that contest for her and her performance of it last night was a rocking, jazzy one. There were three performers that Uggams got to appear with at the Apollo and the various other theatres she sang at in her early days and she has interesting stories and lovely songs she sings in homage to them.  Those individuals include Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.  She channelled all three of these performers in the songs of theirs she sang and her performance of Fitzgerald's hit song "A Tisket A Tasket" was a big hit last night.

A couple other highlights from the evening- a spine tingling, slowed down version of "Up On the Roof" sung with only guitar accompaniment by Steve Bargonetti which was almost immediately followed by a jazzy, slightly sped up version of "Hello Young Lovers" from The King and I with only a solo drum arrangement from Buddy Williams.

Uggams also performed the two big solo songs her character had in Hallelujah Baby! - the show she won her Tony for.  Her rendition of "My Own Corner" from that show sounded pretty much like the one from the original cast recording. An amazing feat considering she recorded that over 40 years ago. That song is such a good song, starting out quiet and building to a powerful finish and Uggams' original cast recording performance of it is one of the standard show tunes they play regularly on the Sirius/XM Broadway channel.   Uggams mentioned that that show was originally offered to Lena Horne and after Horne turned it down the creators decided to look for an unknown to play the lead role.  So Horne's decision to turn the part down was what basically put Uggams on the map.   Uggams mentioned that her association with Horne has now come full circle as she has been working on a Horne bio musical, Stormy Weather and she ended her show last night with two Horne songs including an amazing version of "Stormy Weather" makes me hope that her Horne musical has a future life that hopefully includes Broadway.

Uggams was backed by a quintet led by Don Rebic.  All five men were having as much fun as the audience was.  A recording that features many songs performed in the show is scheduled to be released in February.  I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of that recording.

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