By Melissa Griegel…
Legendary Jennifer Holliday joyously made her return to 54 Below stage as part of their elegant Diamond Series for six dates beginning on February 21st, 2023. There are three more shows thru February 26 that includes prosecco, and an elegant special menu with amuse-bouche selected by the chef and your choice of gastronomical delights from a three-course dinner menu.
This Tony and Grammy award winner rose to fame as Effie “Melody” White in the Broadway hit musical Dreamgirls. In addition to winning the Tony for Best Actress in a musical for this role, she also garnered a Grammy for the show-stopping ballad “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls. Her Broadway career also included the iconic role of Shrug Avery in The Color Purple and Mama Morton in Chicago.
Jennifer was accompanied on stage by pianist and Music Director Rashad McPherson and a sextet of accomplished musicians: Crison Oates on bass guitar, Shawn Dustin on drums, Andrew “AJ” Jagannath on lead guitar, Craig Hill on saxophone, Ryan Easter on trumpet, and Javon Johnson on trombone. McPherson did the special musical arrangements for the show and arranged the Cole Porter Medley.
Holliday made her way through the audience to the stage shimmering in a glittery blue pantsuit, looking stunning. She thanked everyone for her warm reception. “I am grateful for your support to come here and to spend some time with you,” she told the audience. “I also really appreciate 54 Below for their invitation inviting me to be part of their Diamond Series. When they first called me to be part of the series, it was actually before the pandemic. I knew exactly what I wanted to sing. But like most of us, there have been a whole lot of changes! Now I feel a lot differently of not only who I am as a person, but how I want people to get an opportunity to know me, and what I want to sing for you. Anyone coming to an event like this, you are not only fan, but you are also my friend, and I thank you.”
We did get to know Holliday during the show, not only through her song choices, but through her storytelling in between songs. “Most of the songs I have chosen are a personal reflection of mine, or something I have been thinking about,” she said. After “It’s My Turn” and “Pick Yourself Up”, she moved into a series of Broadway tunes with “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls, “Push Da Button” from The Color Purple, and “The Way He Makes Me Feel” from the film Yentl. These pieces gave her the chance to talk about how life-changing it was to be in Dreamgirls, how she had to audition to play Shug Avery, and how she got to sing at the Oscars at the behest of Barbra Streisand. She talked about why she wanted to play Shug, despite being “almost 30-years-older than the rest of the cast.” “I wanted the opportunity to grow my acting skills,” she explained. “John Doyle is the kind of director who strips down plays of all of the gaudy costumes and gaudy sets and focuses on the story and the characters. I was able to work closely with him for a month to help us develop the right Shug Avery for her being a more mature woman. It was one of the most rewarding experiences for me in terms of growth as an actress and growth as a person.”
Her beautiful and stylized version of “At Last”, made famous by Etta James, received a standing ovation, as well as both of her Dreamgirls songs. The veteran performer opened up about her 44-year career with all of the ups and downs of life and of show business. “There have been more downs than ups,” she confided. “But I keep on getting back up. I keep fighting, especially in my career. It’s a hard industry to be in. I am constantly fighting to let people know I am still here and still have a lot to offer.” She certainly does have a lot to offer. She was very warm and personable in her storytelling and her voice was top-notch. She belted out hits such as Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s “River Deep, Mountain High” and Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” with the ease of a performer half her age and held out her signature long notes to the delight of the crowd who held on to each vocalization.
Holliday received success at a young age, receiving a Tony at the tender age of 25. Starting at 19, she grew to make a name for herself with Dreamgirls, but her career came to a sudden halt at the age of 27. “I was overweight. I was over 400 pounds. You should still be able to sing; your talent should be enough. But it was becoming the age of video and my record company didn’t want to show my body, didn’t want to make videos of me, didn’t push my records.” Holliday also said she wanted to set the record straight about her relationship with Michael Bennett, the director of Dreamgirls. Although a lot has been said about people’s perception of him taking control of her life starting at the age of 19, she has fond memories of how he helped her career and felt loved by him. She also spoke fondly of Marvin Hamlisch’s influence on her life. “He kept me working all the way up until the day he died.” Holliday dedicated “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line to both men. “I think of these two men often. One helped to create who I am and one helped to sustain who I am.”
Holliday ended the show with the song that made her famous—“And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”. She introduced the song by saying, “People often ask me if I ever get tired of singing my signature song. I am happy to say that the answer is no; I never get tired of singing it! The meaning of the song has changed for me over the years.”
Holliday definitely deserved the honor of being part of the Diamond Series and put on a show worthy of the series giving her fans exactly what they were hoping for from this Broadway star and queen of R&B.
Tickets can be purchased on www.54below.com.
Photos by Melissa Griegel Photography