by Brian Scott Lipton
New Yorkers have many age-old holiday traditions, from visiting Macy’s windows to going ice skating at Rockefeller Center. One of the newer, if equally delightful, ones is attending Tony Award nominee Norm Lewis’ annual Yuletide show at Feinstein’s/54 Below. So it’s a pleasure to report that in his fifth consecutive outing, entitled Naughty and Nice, Lewis shines just as brightly as the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and inspires the same awe, at times, that one gets when looking at a beautifully directed store window.
Indeed, Lewis’ stunning baritone, his down-to-earth personality and playful nature are all put to excellent use in this act, which has been smartly directed by Richard-Jay Alexander. Indeed, the opening number, in which a nattily dressed Lewis weaves through the crowd while singing a jazzy version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” signals this will be no staid, somber concert, and the next 80 minutes proves that to be the case.
As it happens, only half of the show is actually devoted to so-called “Christmas songs,” and Lewis and Alexander have taken, in their words, a “deep dive” in order to find some unusual selections, all of which are performed exquisitely. There’s the rockabilly-sounding “Christmas Comes Once a Year,” the truly lovely “One Little Christmas Tree,” Sammy Cahn and David Holt’s deliciously melancholy “Christmas Blues,” the stirring “Who Would Imagine a King” (from the film The Preacher’s Wife) and the infectious “Why Couldn’t It Be Christmas Every Day.” Perhaps the most traditional song in the entire set is John Jacob Niles’ gorgeous “I Wonder as I Wander,” which Lewis dedicates to the late, great opera singer Jessye Norman.
Theater fans will be delighted to discover that Lewis delves into the Broadway repertoire – with equally excellent results – offering superb renditions of Meredith Willson’s peerless patter song “Trouble” (from The Music Man), Charlie Smalls’ inspirational “Home” (from The Wiz), the ever-gorgeous “People” (from Funny Girl) and, unsurprisingly, the soaring “Music of the Night” (from The Phantom of the Opera, in which Lewis made history a few years ago by becoming the first African-American actor to essay the title role on Broadway.)
Even more powerful is his brief foray into pop, specifically two songs by the great Marvin Gaye, “I Want to Be Home for Christmas” and the classic “What’s Going On,” both of which Lewis delivers with spellbinding passion. On these tunes, as well as throughout his entire set, pianist/musical director Joseph Joubert, percussionist Perry Cavari and bassist George Farmer prove to be invaluable collaborations.
Lewis also proves to be a truly giving performer (at least on opening night) in more than one sense of the word. Sporadically, he hands out copies of his newest recording, “The Norm Lewis Christmas Album” to a few lucky patrons. But his gift to everyone is bringing up his former co-star Sierra Boggess, whose sterling soprano lights up a duet of Willson’s “Till There Was You,” followed by a stunning solo turn on Stephen Sondheim’s “No One Is Alone” (from Into the Woods). Later, Lewis cedes the stage to Seth Rudetsky and aging diva Miss Evie (actor Jack Plotnick in drag), who turn in a hilarious routine rather reminiscent of downtown legends Kiki & Herb.
So if you’re not sure what gifts are coming your way later this month – or even if you are – there are few better presents you can get yourself than a ticket to Naughty and Nice.
Norm Lewis: Naughty and Nice continues at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 West 54th Street) through December 22. Visit www.54below.com for more information.