Reviewed by Joe Regan Jr.
Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series at the Allen Room scored another winner March 8 when they invited Broadway star Norm Lewis to appear. “Norm Lewis: Who Am I?” was a thrilling evening with the Broadway star choosing a program of songs that meant something to him. Similar to the autobiographical shows that Broadway stars do at 54 Below, Lewis’ show was different because it wasn’t about his personal life, it was about why he wanted to sing each individual song. He opened with a great full-voiced “Once In A Lifetime” but he changed pace immediately with a soft, whispered, and elegantly phrased “Misty.” He introduced his great musicians, Perry Cavari on drums, George Farmer on bass, and Joseph Joubert, his musical director on piano.
Lewis told us one of his first professional theater jobs was in a summer stock company in Connecticut. He was in the male chorus of “My Fair Lady” and every night when Liza Doolittle sang “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” he vowed that one day he would sing that song. So we got a wonderful, jazzy version of that in Lewis’ great blues voice. He also stated that when he was recently booked at the Venetian Room at the Fairmont in San Francisco he looked up the history of the performers there and one of his idols was Peggy Lee, followed by a great, sexy “Fever.”
Lewis discussed the controversy caused by Steven Sondheim over the recent revival of “Porgy and Bess.” In his great operatic voice Lewis sang a stunning “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’.” On the second chorus he changed into his blues voice and swung it! He demonstrated his Tony nomination as a rebuke to Sondheim, but later did two stunning Sondheim songs: the full version of the cut from “Company” “Marry Me A Little” soaring into those high notes, and his last encore was a quiet, sensitive “No One Is Alone.”
His admiration for Tony Bennett led him to find an early recording of Bennett’s – Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “It Amazes Me,” crooning that standard with full acting chops.
His first audition for a Broadway show caused the tryout pianist to look sneeringly at him when he looked at the song he chose. Lewis began and the casting people didn’t stop him after five minutes so he did the complete wild rendition of “Before The Parade Passes By” and he got the job! The pianist was Seth Rudetsky!
Lewis talked about being in “Side Show” and wanting to sing the Siamese Twins song: “I Will Never Leave You.” Tonight he did that song and it was so romantic! He also loved Stevie Wonder, commented on how Wonder’s voice changed over the years and sang a wild early great Wonder torch love song “Knock Me Off.”
Lewis told us about his family history, his grandfather escaping slavery in Virginia, traveling with sympathizers to Florida where Lewis was raised. He knew he had cousins in Virginia. Some years ago when he was living on the Upper West Side the pastor of his church was a Lewis and from Virginia!. That cousin, Pastor Bobby Lewis, appeared on stage with his 14 member Harlem choir, the Bobby Lewis Ensemble and led them and Norm all in a great rocking gospel song, “Take Me Back.”
Lewis stated his philosophy: music is what makes life work living. To wind everything up, he sang, in full voice, a glorious rendition of “Without A Song.”
*Photos: Stephen Sorokoff