By Brian Scott Lipton . . .
Many an artist tackling her first solo concert at Carnegie Hall might simply choose to avoid the specter of that venue’s most celebrated vocalist: the late Judy Garland. But Heather Headley is no ordinary performer. So, to open her solo gig with the New York Pops on Friday, February 10, the Trinidadian-born Tony Award winner strode confidently to center stage, bedecked in a dazzling aquamarine sequined dress, and launched into a haunting, defiant and idiosyncratic rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Three minutes later, an audience that was already prepared to be thrilled was in full “brava” mode.
The cheers barely let up over the next two-and-half-hours as Headley’s flexible voice, unerring acting instincts, and innate musicality transformed some of the greatest songs for theater, film and pop into mini-masterworks. She immediately launched into “Easy As Life” from Aida – the show that won her a Tony Award at age 25 – before paying homage to her first Broadway show, The Lion King, with a lovely take on its blockbuster hit, “Can You Feel The Love Tonight.”
I was hoping she would perform one of her killer numbers from her recent turn as The Witch in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, such as her unforgettable “Last Midnight.” Instead, after a heartfelt anecdote about how she spent her entire career avoiding Sondheim’s music because it scared her, she bewitched us with a gorgeous medley of two of that show’s most stirring songs, “Children Will Listen” and “No One Is Alone,” sensitively arranged by her musical director Ron Colvard.
A revealing story about her relationship with her children during the early days of the Covid pandemic led into a spectacular version of Tim Minchin’s “My House” (from Matilda). As good as that was, though, it paled in comparison to the most stunning, passionate version of Jason Robert Brown’s “Still Hurting” (from The Last 5 Years) I’ve ever heard. I could barely catch my breath when it was over.
The remainder of the show didn’t deliver anything quite as impressive as that tune, but I will always treasure Headley’s immaculately performed renditions of Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High,” Elton John’s “Your Song,” and Randy Newman’s “When She Loved Me,” which punctuated her eclectic second act.
Headley also ceded the floor to her friend and touring partner, Chris Mann, who delivered a stirring “Music of the Night” (from The Phantom of the Opera) before joining Headley on the debut performance of the song they co-wrote, “Because You Need Me” and the gospel classic “Amazing Grace.”
As the concert seemingly concluded with a heartfelt version of Stephen Schwartz’s heart-wrenching “For Good” (with an assist from the Broadway Inspirational Voices Choir), we were left to wonder: Was Headley really not going to do one song by Whitney Houston? (Headley had starred in the musical version of Houston’s hit film, The Bodyguard.) After all, there could be no more perfect audience to appreciate hearing one of Houston’s hits soar through Carnegie Hall.
Fear not: With five minutes left before the concert needed to conclude – although most of us would have stayed all night — Headley returned and turned the hallowed hall into the world’s greatest nightclub, leading the audience into a joyous, freeing sing-and-dance-along to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Talk about your happy endings!
Photos: Richard Termine