By Brian Scott Lipton
For five decades, British pop icon David Bowie was one of the most prolific –and chameleonic – singers on the planet, changing his musical styles and physical appearance with unusual regularity. In the process, he maintained a consistently strong fan base and gained new admirers along the way – a phenomenon that has continued since his untimely death in early 2016. (Just witness the sold-out, months-long retrospective of his life that recently closed at the Brooklyn Museum!)
So it was little surprise the fans – of all ages – came out on Monday night to 54 Below, where they were treated to “54 Sings David Bowie,” a well-conceived and consistently exciting tribute to the late superstar. Genially hosted and smartly directed by Scott Coulter (who kept the biographical tidbits about Bowie to a minimum) and featuring innovative musical direction by Michael Holland (leading a superb five-piece band, which occasionally leaned a little too heavily on drummer Larry Lelli), the show mixed some of Bowie’s most well-known hits with a few less familiar tunes, each one performed expertly by a troupe of superb vocalists.
Blaine Knauss (currently appearing in “Kinky Boots”) kicked things off with an all-out medley of “I’m Afraid of Americans” and “Young Americans”; Mike Wartella brought a plaintive and soulful quality to two of Bowie’s most beloved compositions “Space Oddity” and “Starman”; Downtown sensation Michael T (who looks and sounds quite like Bowie) was mesmerizing on “Rock n’ Roll Suicide” and “Five Years”; Aaron David Gleason showcased unbelievable sex appeal and energy on “The Jean Genie”; the always show-stopping Tyce Green rocked out on “Suffragette City” and joined Holland for a divine duet on “Under Pressure” (which was co-written with British rock band Queen); and Coulter did a brilliant job on two of Bowie’s later hits, the “new wave”-inspired “Modern Love’ and “Let’s Dance.”
As good as the men were, the show’s three female vocalists practically walked away with the evening. Lisa Viggiano offered one of the most passionate renditions of “Changes” I’ve ever heard; Lorinda Lizitza was on fire during “Oh! You Pretty Things” and Farah Alvin practically blew the roof off the club with her steel-lunged yet precise versions of “Sons of the Silent Ages” and “Life on Mars,” the latter of which earned the night’s biggest ovation.
Yes, one didn’t get to hear every Bowie hit (“Fame” and “Heroes” were among the obvious omissions), but the show was a most satisfying salute to one of pop music’s most enduring talents.
“54 Celebrates David Bowie” played at 54 Below (254 West 54th Street) on Monday, August 27 at 7pm.