Niki and Donna: Songs and Stories

Niki and Donna

Songs and Stories

The Green Room 42, NYC, January 27, 2024

Reviewed by Randolph B. Eigenbrode

Niki & Donna

There’s an indescribable, singular flavor that organically develops between two musicians who perform together for years. This flavor, however, can become stale and tiresome over time, seemingly frozen and showing with little artistic evolution. Yet for Niki Haris and Donna De Lory, who have been harmonizing together for well over three decades, there’s no denying their continued irresistibility, particularly when they finally found themselves upfront in the spotlight.

For the uninitiated, the duo came together to sing backup for the 1987 world tour of an artist you may have heard of—Madonna—and the rest was music history.  For the next 15 years Niki and Donna would help to define the aural aesthetic of the Queen of Pop, singing with her in every live performance and on most recorded offerings. While Haris and De Lory are solo artists in their own right, it wasn’t until fairly recently that they reconnected to become a pop pair who, like the famous woman they used to back, adopted singular names.

In their first major NYC showing (save for an intimate appearance in Brooklyn five years ago), the two ladies took to the stage looking every bit like divas, clad in complementary ensembles of blinding gold-and-champagne sequins. First came their statement of their intent to “stand for love, forgiveness and gratitude”; then they launched into “I Know You, I Live You” (Chaka Khan/Arif Mardin). It quickly became clear that evening would be filled with mantra and meaning. Yes, these divas had something to say, as if they were on a dance floor where the similarly single-monikered Oprah was the DJ. Luckily for us, their promotion of positivity was earnest and never crossed over into preachiness.

While their set naturally was more concert than cabaret, both ladies possessed a palpable energy that reached over the footlights and was chock-full of audience connection. At each turn they extended their hands out to the audience, seemingly putting a question mark at the end of both patter and lyrics to say “You know what I mean?  I know you’ve been there too.” This was particularly effective in “Blessed to be a Witness” (Ben Harper), “Optimistic” (Gary Hines/Jimmy “Jam” Harris/Terry Lewis), and “Kinder” (Copper Wimmin). The latter, which began with a stark a cappella harmony, seemed especially heartfelt when they connected to sing  “I’ve decided to be grateful for all I ever had.”

Remarkably for women in their 60s, Niki and Donna easily delivered vocals with varying colors and approaches—pyrotechnics on one phrase, a breathy whisper on the next. Perhaps the most satisfying was their heart-tugging whine full of cry that suggested a steel guitar. They were in control both their voices and their material. Donna took a star-turn when she delivered her first solo single, “Praying for Love” (Donna De Lory/Paul Gordon). This piece, honed during years of performing, exuded a lived-in vitality that resulted in a more expressive delivery of the lyric than you might expect from a pop song. Niki, who found humor throughout the evening in the most unexpected of places, planted herself on a stool to bring a devastating “I Could Have Told You” (Jimmy Van Heusen/Carl Sigman) to full boil. (Brava for both songs, ladies!)

As might be expected, it was selections from the Madonna songbook that had the audience most invigorated.  A ballad version of “Open Your Heart” (Madonna Ciccone/Gardner Cole/Peter Rafelson) highlighted the oft-unnoticed haunting lyrics, and a fabulously punctuated “La Isla Bonita” (Ciccone/Patrick Leonard/Bruce Gaitsch) put the room into a Spanish-dance frenzy. But it was “Rain” (Ciccone/Shep Pettibone) that allowed the duo to shine most brightly. They again found an unexpected lyrical quality unexplored in its original form: “Hope.” With their voices perfectly matched and entwined in lush harmony, they elevated the song from a middle-of-the-road pop ballad to unabashed life-affirming anthem. In today’s current climate of toil and trouble, it was this type of offering that made this audience love these “backup singers” that much more.

Randolph B. Eigenbrode

Randolph is the newest addition to the writing staff at Cabaret Scenes. He is a cabaret teacher, previously teaching with legend Erv Raible, and his students have gone on to success in the field with sold-out shows and many awards. He is also a director and that, combined with a knowledge of the art form and techniques that cabaret performing encompasses, makes him love reviewing NYC’s cabaret scene. When not catching the Big Apple’s crazy talent, Randolph loves 1970s variety shows, mall Chinese food, Meryl Streep films and a good cold glass of pinot grigio.