Norm Lewis: Summertime

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Norm Lewis

Summertime

54 Below, NYC, June 12, 2024.

Reviewed by Alix Cohen

Norm Lewis

Norm Lewis worked his way through the club patting shoulders and shaking hands as he sang “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (Jule Styne/Bob Merrill from Funny Girl). “This is not a show, not a concert. You’ve been invited to my living room” he told us. You’d think that would have meant he would have taken a less stiff, more candid approach. Instead, there was an excess of patter and personal call outs, too much reading of lyrics, and a surprising lack of focus. Repeated mentions of the roles and awards he had not yet achieved came off as a tad bitter and did not embody the modesty he claimed as he listed his accomplishments.

Lewis has a splendid vocal instrument and marvelous control. He’s a likeable guy. The collection of Broadway songs, mostly from his own career, was a good one. When he presented his material in context, especially material from roles, however, the character should have been paramount. Smiling through Stephen Schwartz’s “Corner of the Sky” (Pippin), in which Pippin is confused and disturbed, contradicted the meaning of the song. As General George Washington performing “Right Hand Man” (Linn-Manuel Miranda from Hamilton; he didn’t get the part) and as Harold Hill delivering “Trouble” (Meredith Willson from The Music Man, a role he played in Washington, D.C.), he managed acrobatic phrasing with clarity and rhythm. During “Trouble,” he effectively descended into the audience, ostensibly to confront the “townspeople.” The first song exhibited no character to speak of, and the second lacked the glee of deception. It was all about technique.

“Summertime” (George Gershwin/DuBose Heyward/Dorothy Heyward/Ira Gershwin) from Lewis’ turn in the Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess offered his signature voice, deep and flannelled. Lewis was present. “I Gotta Be Me” (Walter Marks from Golden Rainbow) also received his attention. It was dramatic, but not overly stressed. Even when he shook his fists he was restrained. “Try to Remember” (Harvey Schmidt/Tom Jones from The Fantasticks) was just lovely. The shimmering cymbal and the circling brushes and chimes were understated.

Norm Lewis & Brian Stokes Mitchell

A duet on “Agony” (Stephen Sondheim from Into the Woods; he didn’t get the role) with guest Brian Stokes Mitchell cast the artists as obliviously egotistical princes. Mitchell acted the part; Lewis just sang. Mitchell then performed a show-stopping “Feeling Good” (Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse from The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd). It started with accompaniment by Joseph Joubert’s rippling piano, and Stokes was exultant. He moved across the stage like a dancer, extended an arm, leaned out, connected, and seduced the audience. Where, we wanted to know, is YOUR show?

Norm Lewis & Nova Payton

Guest Nova Payton joined Lewis for “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” (Mitch Leigh/Joe Darion from Man of La Mancha). “Don’t fuck it up, Norm,” Stokes Mitchell called out, this having been one of his notable roles. The lyric is decidedly not suitable for a duet. Payton then sang the obscure “Again” (Nolan Williams Jr. from Grace) with terrific gospel precision and pronounced vibrato. Stokes and director Richard Jay-Alexander literally ran up on stage and knelt at her feet.

“My Friends” (Stephen Sondheim from Sweeney Todd) and “The Music of the Night” (Andrew Lloyd Webber/Charles Hart from The Phantom of the Opera) were high points. Both were gorgeously sung; Lewis hypnotically manifested Todd’s relationship to his razor. Here, good direction was apparent. There was an elegance to the gravitas of the phantom, and Lewis’ tremulous finesse and soaring tenor stilled the room. The number ended airbrushed. “Lucky to Be Me” (Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden & Adolph Green from On the Town) backed by lush piano, expressed sincere feelings of gratitude.

One couldn’t help but be disappointed by Norm Lewis’s erratic attention—now here, now gone.  His talent was obvious, as was his warmth, but overall the show was a mixed bag. In addition to Joubert on piano, Lewis and his guests were backed by Perry Cavari on drums and Dylan Shamat on bass.

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.