REVIEW: Leslie Uggams, 54 Below ✭✭✭✭✭

Ray Rackham reviews Leslie Uggams in Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue at 54 Below, New York.

Leslie UggamsLeslie Uggams
Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue
54 Below, New York
5 Stars
54 Below Website

When Dionne Warwick calls you and welcomes you to the octogenarian club, you know you’re something special, and Leslie Uggams’ most recent engagement at 54 Below (the jewel in the crown of New York’s supper clubs) proves once again in her seventh decade of delighting audiences, that she has indeed always been special. Almost a decade on from her first performances at 54 Below, Leslie once again delivered a deliciously naughty, emotionally charged, delightfully funny evening of the American Songbook, jazz standards, and new takes on familiar material, that had the audience cheering “Hallelujah, Baby!” again and again.

If you don’t know who Ms. Uggams is, then where have you been? But, if you are somewhat unfamiliar (which you will be forgiven, just this once), Leslie is the celebrated Tony and Emmy Award-winning Broadway actress, perhaps best known for her portrayal of Kizzy in the – now legendary – Landmark TV mini-series “Roots”, and more recently as Ryan Reynolds’ gun-toting, gansta-granny, roommate Blind Al in “Deadpool”. Starting her decades-long career at the age nine of at the famed Apollo Theater in New York City, and most recently appearing at the City Center in “Jelly’s Last Jam”, Ms Uggams became a gay icon the world over when she was asked to perform the classic show tune “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” (from “Carousel”) and making up more than a few lyrics (in a performance that has to be seen to be believed, and which Ms Uggams puts the record straight as to the history and background during this show).

To say Ms. Uggams has done it all is an understatement, and at 54 Below she is given the creative freedom and a loving, enthusiastic audience to explore her fascinating, multi-hyphenated and varied career, and then marry this exploration with a selection of songs that constantly amaze. This is cabaret at its very best, and when Ms. Uggams exclaims “time is flying by” the entire audience want to capture time in a bottle and stay with her forever. An unrelenting and expert storyteller (always saying it exactly like it was, is and always will be) you cannot help but want to know more from every story she tells, from a young Lennon & McCartney believing she was a dead ringer for Shirley Bassey (whom has naturally become a good friend over the years, even if Leslie has no idea who she was at the time), to Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme treating her like their daughter back in the ‘tap school days’; Ms Uggams is a walking compendium of everything that was perfect about the entertainment industry, and maybe even its greatest hope that things can still be perfect; if only for little over an hour in a basement supper club on 54th Street. Not one name is dropped, but every name celebrated: from Louis Armstrong to Ella Fitzgerald, to Dinah Washington, Ms Uggams has stood shoulder to shoulder with the greatest entertainers of all time, and quite rightly deserves the adoration she receives from her delighted audiences.

When Ms. Uggams sings, you are in the presence of true greatness. Accompanied by the spectacular trio of Don Rebic (Musical Director/piano), George Farmer (bass) and Buddy Williams (drums), the roof is constantly raised by a magical alchemy of singer and music that you rarely see on Broadway, or anywhere else for that matter. At moments, one could be forgiven for thinking a full orchestra was hiding behind the bar, or out in the kitchen (kudos also to the 54 Below team for the best sound design in the City). And as for the songs? Heartbreakingly poignant performances of “My Own Morning” (from her hit 1967 show “Hallelujah Baby”) and “Yesterday” share a bill with rabble-rousing renditions of “Something’s Coming” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade”; pin-drop clarity of “Hello Young Lovers” and knowing counsel in “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough” live happily with the powerhouse vocals of “If He Walked Into My Life”. New interpretations of well-known pieces work so well because Ms. Uggams is the consummate interpreter for the Universal Songbook, and when Leslie invited her daughter Danielle Chambers onto the stage to perform the funkiest version of Jackie Deshannon’s “Put A Little Love in Your Heart”, you caught a glimpse of the diva away from the spotlight; a proud as punch mother celebrating everything about love, life and the joy of being alive. Triumphant without sentimentality, Ms. Uggams transcends every clichéd comment about ‘longevity’ by simply being in the now, and loving every minute of it.

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