Norm Lewis: Santa Baby!

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Norm Lewis

Santa Baby!

Feinstein’s/54Below, NYC, December 21, 2017

Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes

Norm Lewis

“Hang all the mistletoe/ I’m gonna get to know you better /This Christmas…” (“This Christmas”; Donny Hathaway/Nadine McKinnor). There’s that familiar, resonant voice, rockin’ out with a wide, easy grin, bouncing and bending towards the musicians, eyes crinkled… “Shake a hand, shake a hand,” he sings — and does.

Norm Lewis is an affable personality. For this, his third annual Christmas appearance at Feinstein’s/54 Below, he offers holiday songs, odes to hearth and home, numbers from musicals, and some of which he has fond memories. The mixed results hum along with infectious good spirit.

Growing up with seasonal music sung by Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis, Lewis’ recollections are warm. “What Child Is This?”/”Mary, Did You Know?” (William C. Dix with 16th century melody; Mark Lowry/Buddy Greene) begins with somber elegance and swings into a skating waltz. Arms extend forward with open palms during the second number. Heart and message are clear. Lewis has an evocative hum at the back of his throat, extending melody.

New lyrics to Joan Javits/Phil Springer/Tony Springer’s “Santa Baby,” however, ask St. Nick for a Rolex, ’65 steel blue convertible, Hamilton tickets, and cash. I found this more crass than amusing and missed the song’s innate, flirty innuendo.

James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face” and Marvin Gaye’s funk-tinted “What’s Goin’ On?” prompt heads all over the club to bob in time. Both these songs are unembroidered. Delivery adds buoyancy and honesty. Lewis moves like a dancer. Vocal is cottony for the first, progressing to R & B during the second, as attitude is punctuated by arms shooting out with “…picket lines…and picket signs…” In between the title lyric, Lewis calls out “…emails…What’s goin’ on? collusion…What’s goin’ on? taxes…What’s goin’ on? -lies, lies, lies….” Marvin Gaye once said of his composition, “If I was arguing for peace, I knew I’d have to find peace in my heart.”

Also appealing were Lewis’ feathery “Where Is Love?” (Lionel Bart from Oliver!) and, in tribute to recently deceased Barbara Cook, a palpably affectionate version of “Old Friends” (Stephen Sondheim from Merrily We Roll Along) accompanied by images of Ms. Cook (Video: Nellie Beavers).

Two young women were Lewis’ guests this evening. Olivia Hardy, an undergraduate at The University of Michigan, showed stage presence, despite avowed nervousness. She has robust pipes and a good sense of phrasing, but needs to eliminate the nasal quality that made her duet abrasive. A solo of “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) (Robert Wells/Mel Tormé) fared better, unleashing some attractive, two-octave, one-syllable interpretation.

Mikaela Bennett, who just graduated Juilliard in the opera program (you can especially hear the genre training in high notes), hit the ground (professionally) running, has a well-honed instrument and the ability to sell a song. Her rendition of Maury Yeston’s “Home” is emotionally credible, though pulling back a little would make it more soulful and less pressed.

Lewis is a playful, gregarious, multifaceted artist who drew a club full of fans who were not only familiar with his work, but felt sufficiently proprietary to address him from the audience. He tells long, extemporaneous stories and encourages interaction which, though cozy, adds an expendable 15-20 minutes to the show.

The lovely “White Christmas” ends our evening with a powdery shysh/shush.

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.