Review: ‘Broadway Up Close: Vanessa Williams’ at the Kimmel Center

Continuing the exciting season of Broadway Up Close concerts on Saturday at the Kimmel Center, Seth Rudetsky hosted Broadway and recording star Vanessa Williams for an evening of her career highlights with plenty of insider industry chat. Best known for her chart-topping hits, her film and television roles of epic proportion, and her star turns on Broadway, the New York native was also the first African-American woman ever to be crowned Miss America in 1983.

Broadway Up Close splits up the traditional cabaret style and turns the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater into a dual-purpose piano bar and talk-show set. Rather than the usual patter between songs, Rudetsky interviews the star with his own deep knowledge of the Broadway community, as he gets to the bottom of some of the juiciest show business gossip. An author, accompanist, and producer, Seth Rudetsky will be most familiar from his hosting duties in the afternoons on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio’s On Broadway.

Vanessa Williams. Photo courtesy the Kimmel Center.

Vanessa Williams. Photo courtesy of The Kimmel Center.

Although Vanessa Williams may have a knack for inhabiting high-maintenance characters, like her Emmy-nominated role of Wilhelmina Slater on ABC’s Ugly Betty, she does not claim to be a diva. She has a deep pride in her achievements, but with a down-to-earth energy and a love of the work. Too often, she argues, the label “diva” is just an excuse for bad behavior. She learned her love of singing from her music teacher parents, played in the high school marching band, and worked summers to pay her way through school.

Her Broadway break came as the replacement for Chita Rivera in the starring role of Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Williams recounts with fondness the high-pressure stakes of replacing a Broadway star with just three weeks of rehearsal, recalling her excitement and determination. In spite of bleeding her way through her one and only dress rehearsal (a crash course with the set as she was flown offstage), she went on for her first show “just a little sore” to rave reviews. She would go on to find more Broadway success with a Tony nomination for her role in the revival of Into the Woods as well as the musical revue Sondheim on Sondheim at Studio 54.

Of course, her beauty is undeniable, but her talent is multifaceted. Songs like “Stormy Weather” and “Peel Me a Grape” highlighted her smooth and sultry vocal skills, while musical theater classics like “Bill” from Show Boat or “Losing My Mind” from Follies showed off a huge and agile sound. Her warmth and stunning clarity came out strongest, however, in three of her biggest recording hits, “The Sweetest Days” and “Save the Best for Last” from her hit albums, and “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s Pocahontas. And as one last encore treat, she revisited the classic “Happy Days are Here Again,” from her 1983 Miss America win.

Seth Rudetsky. Photo courtesy the Kimmel Center.

Seth Rudetsky. Photo courtesy of The Kimmel Center.

Williams spoke openly and diplomatically about her time as Miss America and the haunting days that led up to resigning her title after unauthorized photos of her were published in Penthouse magazine, as well as the apology she received from the organization in 2016. In spite of the scandal when she was just twenty years old, Williams forged her own career and diligently rebuilt her public image, eventually attaining the Broadway stardom she always dreamt of. With a few more star-studded events this season including Chita Rivera and Alice Ripley, Broadway Up Close continues to provide a delicious blend of classic performances and unforgettable stories.

Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.

Broadway Up Close: Vanessa Williams played for one night only, on Saturday, January 21, 2017, at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts – 300 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For future events, visit the calendar of events.

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