BWW Review: Dazzling ‘Diva’ VIVIAN REED Is Awe-Inspiring On STANDARDS & MORE at the Metropolitan Room
June 1 2016
Vivian Reed and her consummate band–led by conductor and pianist Billy McDaniel, and joined by guest vocalists Janinah Burnett and Raun Ruffin–dazzled a packed Metropolitan Room on May 23 with her new show, An Evening with Vivian Reed: Standards and More.
Stephen Holden of the New York Times praised the April opening of what has now become a six-show run in extravagant (and for him, uncharacteristic) terms, describing the two-time Tony nominee best known for the 1970s revue “Bubbling Brown Sugar” and “High Rollers” as a “fiercely elegant . . . diva” who “never got her full due.” It’s anyone’s guess as to why that is, but after witnessing the force of nature that is Vivian Reed onstage, one knows the true meaning of the word “diva.”
The idea for the current show came to the Juilliard-trained gospel and Broadway singer when a woman approached Reed during her last run at Feinstein’s/54 Below: “I like the way you sing, and I like the way you move that body. Do you think you’ll do a show with standards?” The answer: Well, sort of.
What distinguishes this show featuring, among others, the music of Cole Porter (“Just One of Those Things”), Frederick Loewe (“Almost Like Being In Love”), Duke Ellington (“In a Sentimental Mood,” Take the A Train”), Richard Rodgers (“My Funny Valentine”), Stephen Sondheim (“Losing My Mind”), and George Gershwin (“It Ain’t Necessarily So”), is the profound originality of Reed’s arrangements and interpretations. While receptive to input from her musical director, she insists that all songs bear “a personal stamp.”
The arrangements, she concedes, can seem a bit “crazy”–even to seasoned musicians like bassist Gary Foote and drummer Damon Duewhite, to whom these songs are hardly unfamiliar. The results are simply astonishing: “My Funny Valentine” and “In a Sentimental Mood” sound unlike any version you’ve heard of either Great American Songbook classic. But Reed doesn’t make unconventional choices simply to be different or iconoclastic, nor does ego drive her sometimes startling phrasing. Her voice, I scrolled in my notes, “is like a dance: a whole body interaction with the songs.” Only later did I realize the extent of Reed’s dance training, and then it all made sense. Like a jazz singer who revels in improvisation, Reed dives headlong into the songs and emerges with something entirely new, fresh, and hers.
If there’s something “scary” about the singer Holden has called “ferocious,” it’s because we rarely see and hear the bravery Reed displays in surrendering her whole self to the music. Only one as confident as Reed in who she is, and in “the gift God gave [her],” could trust with such abandon. The result is something like musical/personal truth. Truth can be frightening; herein lies “the cost” Holden associates with what he calls her “spiritual transcendence.”
As if all this were not enough, Reed is a very funny lady. “There’s a lot of Vivian Reed stories out there,” she says with a wry smile, “Some are true and some aren’t.” We can only imagine what a woman of her extraordinary physical beauty on top of her talent might have provoked by way of rumors over a career that began in the late 1960s. But the performer seems blissfully above the fray.
Her insouciance came through clearly in the story that set up “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” a song she reports always having wanted to sing but never having a reason to, until an exchange with a friend about a Bible message her pastor used to preach. In the Exodus story, God tells Moses to take a staff and throw it to the ground in front of Pharaoh, at which point it turns into a serpent. Moses is then instructed to pick the serpent up by the tail, which causes the serpent to turn back into a staff. The friend’s conclusion: One can’t always believe everything written in the Bible. Cue Gershwin.
Another lighthearted moment came later in the show in a bit between Reed and guest singer Raun Ruffin before “Bluer Than You” (Billy McDaniel). It’s a Bickersons-like riff about whether men or women have worse cases of the blues. Guess who wins?
Such comic moments provide a nice breather before weighty material like “Strange Fruit” (Abe Meeropol), the diva’s duet with operatic soprano Janinah Burnett. With Reed taking the low part and Burnett (the only African-American to play the role of Mimi in La Boheme on Broadway) soaring in the high registers, the song left the audience in almost reverential silence before the deafening applause after the final notes.
The “trip back to Harlem” with Ellington’s “A Train” evoked “Meet Me in Harlem” (recently performed by Andrea Frierson at the Friars Club). And then, for the first time in the show, Reed seemed less like a goddess, and more like many of us mere mortals who take breaks from our lives to care for ailing or aged parents and experience anxiety upon returning to whatever we did before assuming caretaker duties full-time.
Quick to note that she’s never doubted her talent, she nevertheless worried about coming back after an extended hiatus. Two expansive ballads and one jubilant up-tempo song followed, proof that all doubt had been extinguished: “Believe In Yourself” (Charles Smalls), “Up Where We Belong” (Jacques Nitzsche, Buffy Saint-Marie), “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” (Gary Jackson Carl Smith).
As one would expect of an original like Reed, the introduction of the band was not merely a perfunctory nod to the musicians’ accomplishments. Cellist Erik Jacobson got this gig on the subway after Reed heard the brilliant young man playing, asked for his card, and that was that. Bassist Foote she shares with Smokey Robinson.
The evening drew to a close with “Mon Dieu” (Michael Vaucaire, Charles Dumont), a testament to Edith Piaf’s influence on the singer, both during her years in Paris and beyond. “More” (Riz Ortolani/Nino Oliviero/Norman Newell) and “Just The Way You Look Tonight” (Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields), while both well sung, seemed anti-climactic. Too, it was odd to bring the lights up and let Reed mingle with the audience–and not because she doesn’t have mad ad-lib skills or the personal magnetism to wing it. The first time the lights came up mid-show, I thought there was a technical difficulty. It was my only quibble with an awe-inspiring show I will not soon forget, and didn’t want to end.
Vivian Reed will again perform Standards and More at the Metropolitan Room on June 17 at 9:30 pm, July 21 at 7 pm, September 26 at 9:30 pm, and November 10 at 9:30 pm. For reservations, go to: www.metropolitanroom.com
Photos: Lou Montesano, StillRock Photography