By Alix Cohen
There’s no question James Monroe Igleheart is a galvanizing talent. While his role in Memphis brought public attention, that of the genie in Disney’s Aladdin garnered national applause and a Tony Award. The artist is a big man with an open-throated, resonant voice, the ability to dance like someone half his size and an infectious, joyful spirit. Tonight he’s joined by backup singers Trent Saunders and Kathryn Allison (from the cast of Aladdin.)
Iglehart’s dad was an actor, his mom a gospel singer. He grew up both being taken to shows and performing in church. “This is the way it started,” he tells us, launching into James Cleveland’s “I Don’t Need Nobody Else” (with Saunders and Allison offering cranked up call/response.) The gospel number swells like a volcano on the verge of eruption. Back then, it was rhythm, approbation and atmosphere that moved the youngster. It would be awhile before he understood.
“My Soul Has Been Anchored in the Lord” (Douglas Miller), half way through the evening, shows Iglehart’s testimonial power. The boy was 17 and shattered when his dad left home. This song helped him find “the spirit.” Notes arrive in 3-4 syllables with tails that hum. Emphasis is punched, passages sped up or slowed down as the artist preaches, sincere and grateful. Relating the story, he grows teary.
Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” (sung first in elementary school and because of that premise eliciting unfortunate laughter) and Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen’s “All the Way” (learned as a young man), illustrate Igelhart’s discovery that a certain kind of singing could be “a Jedi force” with women. His voice turns swoony. This is aided and abetted by the fact that the theater actor is smart enough not to retreat into stage persona- he chooses women in the club on whom to focus. Barry White’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” is the apotheosis here. Watch the left hand point, beckon, stroke and touch his heart. With Saunders in juicy tandem, the song steams.
When not in seduction mode, Iglehart’s vehicle was/is hip hop. He invites Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan (from the group Freestyle Love Supreme) to the stage. The guest creates virtuoso vocal percussion (think Bobby McFerrin), while Inglehart delivers improvised rap based on words called out by the audience. He’s really good. They both are.
A hip swinging “Honeysuckle Rose” (Fats Waller/ Andy Razaf) from Ain’t Misbehavin’ (with a terrific Allison well worth following on her own), his break out number from Memphis, (unfortunately without even attempt at dance moves ostensibly due to minimal stage area) and a turn as an alphabet letter on The Electric Company feel abbreviated.
This is compounded by Iglehart’s speeding through what should have been this evening’s centerpiece “ Friend Like Me” (Alan Menken/Howard Ashman from Aladdin) to such a degree that not only is the audience unable to get a sense of his vast, mercurial talent, but words are often unintelligible. Lack of elaborate production is cited as a drawback, but, in fact, seeing next to none of the playfulness and bravado observed on the Broadway stage is the issue. While I understand this genie may be tired of the number, he’s both an ambassador for the show and here given an opportunity to best present himself.
A lovely version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” (Leigh Harline/Ned Washington) conveys lightness unheard before. Just above a melodic stage whisper, the song rides Wes Mingus’s deft guitar accompaniment as if forming a constellation of interlocking notes. Dreams… come…true… rises steadily higher and shimmers.
His encore (with Saunders and Allison), a “dirty, soulful” interpretation of “Good Luck Charm,” arrives sheer funk; slides up, sashays down… whoa!…winks, undulates and ambles…”uh huh, uh huh, uh huh…(Aaron Schroeder/Wally Gold)
James Monroe Iglehart is multifaceted and immensely engaging. Warm, colorful stories run on just a bit too long. At least three songs might be successfully added to this very short show while jettisoning snippets. Our appetites are more than whetted and, finally, though this is great fun, one feels somewhat deprived.
James Monroe Iglehart: How he Heck Did I Get Here?
MD/Keyboard- Bill Sherman
Rob Jost-Bass, John Deley-Piano, Abe Fogle-Drums
Feinstein’s 54/Below 254 West 54th St. https://54below.com/
Next Shows: November 14, 2016 at 7:00 & 9:30