Barbara Cook’s Spotlight: LaChanze at The Kennedy Center

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The lithe and dynamic Tony Award -winning (The Color Purple) Broadway musical star (Once on This Island, IF/Then), LaChanze, proved herself to be almost a volcanic, spontaneous force of nature as she blazed her way through twelve disparate songs (and a stunning encore) during her recent appearance at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. Endowing each song with distinctive and very nuanced shadings appropriate to the mood of each lyric, LaChanze displayed an unerring sense of the inherent musical interpretations that were imbedded with each and every word she sang. Though I always knew that she was an exceptional singer of pure theatrically, this specific concert and —of course, LaChanze, herself – broke fresh musical boundaries in so many innovative ways.

LaChanze. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

LaChanze. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

A pronouncedly jazzy feel and ambience—- with some subtle Brazilian music shadings (replete with the natural sounds of birds tweeting and water cascading ) – was on display throughout the evening thanks to the sheer vocal range and verisimilitude of LaChanze’s glorious vocal chops. The more jazz-oriented arrangements throughout the entire evening (courtesy of a superior and accomplished four piece musical ensemble and a marvelous Musical Director/pianist/arranger/accompanist, Michael O’Mitchell) – eschewed easy categorization in favor of almost “free-form” long, languid immersive, explosive and often sultry musical passages.

The positive mood of this beguiling show was placed in motion as LaChanze opened with a very upbeat and jumping cover of the song “Feeling Good.” LaChanze’s musical phrasing discipline was evident as she seemed to pace herself carefully as she caressed each note – only to explode with lustrous color and fiery passion as she approached successive crescendos of vocal power.

Following up with a beautifully creative and appealing arrangement of “I Can See Clearly Now,” LaChanze’s singing was augmented with a stunning instrumental solo that added to the fresh sound of this often-overdone song. Again, the combination of LaChanze’s vocal instrument, superior musicians and “above-the –norm” arrangements” were the key to the concert’s freshness and success.

Next up – LaChanze performed two intriguing songs that she designated as particular favorites—namely, “Nine” (an ode to the sensual immediacy of childhood impressions that was delivered as if she had flown back in time to earlier days of innocence) and “Glitter in the Air,” which was a reflective meditation of sorts on the teeming cascade of feelings that living evokes.

The next segment of the concert was addressed by LaChanze as a tribute to her beloved idol, Diana Ross, and it was definitely a standout of the concert. LaChanze mentioned how she had a crush on Ross while growing up and had performed a recent concert singing Ross’s songs. LaChanze’s covers of four of Ross’s songs were interesting choices and LaChanze – quite appropriately— did not imitate Ross but, rather, gave her a more fitting tribute by endowing each number with her own full-bodied vocal resonance (while still retaining the exterior movements of Ross – arms held high , dramatic body language, etc.).

LaChanze’s rendition of the classic “Touch Me in the Morning” perfectly evoked the attempt to hold onto the immediacy of the intimacy of an evening well-spent and , then , – just as quickly— gone and held tightly to with the memory of the heart.

I have never heard a more rousing rendition of the jaunty, rhythmic classic “Last Time I Saw Him” LaChanze took the opportunity to sing the entire song as if she was narrating a somewhat picaresque tale told in four or five acts —as she portrayed each stanza of the song with perfectly tailored physical stance and vocal inflection. Alternately comedic, defiant, sad and – most decidedly , real and alive –in the moment—this song was a triumph of talent and physical immediacy as LaChanze “waved goodbye” to the lover with all the conflicting and urgent thoughts of one in love. A knockout of a performance!

“Be a Lion” (from the Broadway musical The Wiz) was touching and endearing in its simple and direct appeal to the heart. LaChanze’s finale to her Ross tribute was an intense rendition of the alternately defiant and empowering standard “It’s My Turn.”

La Chanze’s next number, ”If You Really Want,” played like a red-hot fireball of implosive power and had a musical urgency abetted immeasurably by the entire musical ensemble consisting of Chris Parks on Bass, Eric Brown on drums, Michael Ciro on Guitar, and Steven Kroon on Percussion. Wonderfully intricate and convoluted, winding, and twisting instrumental jazzy interludes were interspersed with LaChanze’s sultry, loquacious and resonant vocals. Background lighting of vivid red hue aided immeasurably.

A creative highpoint was a fascinating medley consisting of Stephen Sondheim’s classic “Losing My Mind” and Bill Withers’ “Use Me”. Singing “Losing My Mind” very slowly and reflectively –with a very sophisticated edge and veneer, LaChanze strolled next to pianist Michael O. Mitchell to the strains of an evocative piano solo. This “Losing My Mind” was interpreted as the ultimate elegant cocktail number song. Totally unexpected but, definitely a plus, was the segue way from this elegant classic to the dynamic and sensual, surging “Use Me.” As LaChanze herself mused: “Stephen Sondheim and Bill Withers—who would have thought?”

As mentioned, though it was a pleasure and immeasurable asset to have the brilliant musicianship throughout, it was a distinct pleasure to hear LaChanze sing a couple numbers with the beautiful power of her unadorned voice (minus too much instrumentation) as her voice is an instrument unto itself. Her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” was outstanding in its inherent understanding of the meaning of the lyrics and the illusory nature of life.

For her encore, LaChanze sang the song of empowerment and survival “I’m Here” (from The Color Purple) and exclaimed that the show changed her life. Indeed, this phenomenal concert changed my life thanks to the endless talent of LaChanze.

Running Time: 75 minutes,without an intermission.

LaChanze performed as part of the Barbara Cook’s Spotlight series on Friday, February 13, 2013 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater in Washington, DC. For future events, go to their performance calendar.

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