by Marilyn Lester
There’s a class of performer aptly labeled “powerhouse,” and Vivian Reed stands firmly in the center of it. The diva is an intense, dynamic entertainer – a singer-actress, with an instinct for the dramatic and a penchant for giving her all. Applying these abilities to her tribute to Lena Horne, Reed delivered a show that was no less than electrifying. More than once she had the audience on its feet applauding her soundly. Reed is also savvy about putting together a top-notch band to back her excellence, as well as giving them room to show their stuff. Props also go to her for making their introduction toward the end of the show more than a cursory nod, but a number in itself. The able Calvin Jones (bass), Damon Duewhite (drums) and Don Tipton (guitar) were led by Musical Director William Foster McDaniel , whose piano artistry and arrangements (with Reed) were nothing less than stellar.
About those arrangements: a great many were an intensely upbeat, driving jazz-rock, including treatments of “On a Wonderful Day Like Today” (Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse) and “Singin’ in theRain (Nacio Herb Brown/Arthur Freed). Yet even with a decided bent to power up, Reed toned down from time to time. She presented a bluesy medley of “Lover Man/The Man I Love” (Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler and George and Ira Gershwin) and sang in an almost parlando style on “Just One Of Those Things “ (Cole Porter). There was a comedic twist too, with “A Fine Romance” (Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields), and raw intensity in the tour de force of “Now” (Marvin Green), Reed’s blistering segment on Horne’s civil rights activism. The variety of the arrangements, coupled with the pacing of their delivery give the show backbone and solidity. Through her various interpretations, Reed used her voice freely. Her flexibility allows her to cover a broad range, with vocal gymnastics well meted out so as not to annoy or overpower.
Reed’s flair for storytelling is apparent in both narrative and in her interpretation of lyrics. Her text – an intelligent, chronological biography of Horne (whose centenary it is this year) – in lesser hands could have been awfully dry. But Reed delivered it with flair and with humor, sometimes making a point in a light “ghetto girl” tone. Part of that narrative revealed a personal connection to Horne; when Reed was a student at Julliard, through her association with manager Bobby Schiffman and with Honi Coles, she came to own gowns worn by Horne, no longer wanted, and intended for use by a young budding artist. It was a generosity, she says, that has stayed with her. If there is a flaw in Reed’s tribute to Horne, it’s the omission of Billy Strayhorn. He is mentioned in passing, but was a large part of her equation. Although he was gay, Horne and “Swee’Pea” had an enduring love-affair; she referred to him as “the love of her life.” This important facet of Horne’s history was missing from an otherwise splendid chronicling of it, as was any Strayhorn song, which would have made the homage to Horne complete.
Of course there was the song most closely associated with Horne, “Stormy Weather” (Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler), plus an intimate rendition of “The Nearness Of You” (Hoagy Carmichael/Ned Washington) sung amidst the audience, to whom the song was dedicated. Vivian Reed Sings Lena Horne was bookended by cabaret luminary and Artistic Director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, KT Sullivan. Her first appearance was to introduce Reed. Her second was to display and read the text of The Mabel Mercer Award, given to Reed a month ago at the Foundation’s annual Cabaret Convention. It was a fitting tribute within a tribute.