Reviewed by Joe Regan Jr.
The human dynamo Vivian Reed who has won Theater World, Drama Desk and Outer Circle Awards as well as two Tony nominations made a sizzling and sensational return as a performer at 54 Below on November 11. 54 Below was packed to the rafters. During the show Reed received more standing ovations than any other performer in cabaret I have ever seen!
For the show, Reed had assembled some of the top musicians in New York: Billy McDaniel on piano and synthesizer, Gary Foote on bass, AtsuchiToya Tokuya on synthesizer, Damon Duewhite on drums, along with a saxophone player and stellar background singers Chapman Roberts, Gabrielle Goodman and Ron Ruffin. The band rocked the room playing Oleta Adams’ “Circle of One” before Reed entered, wearing a stunning lavender outfit that showed she hasn‘t an inch of body fat, and belted out with amazing movements “Hold On I’m Comin’.”
Reed began her autobiography by talking about how she was a major in classical music and singing at Julliard when a teacher convinced the teenager to try her talents at the Apollo Amateur Night. She was noticed by the owner, Bobby Shipman, who told her to come back every night after she has done her homework and study the performers who appeared there. Obviously she was impressed by Billie Holiday, because the first songs she learned were “Lover Man” and “The Man I Love.” With great emotion and power, Reed sang both those songs, obviously influenced by Holiday’s phrasing but adding her own strong powerful voice and consummate acting chops and the audience knew they were in for a unique event!
After those two ballads, Reed announced she was going to do a standard but not in the way we’d ever heard it. It was a savage, angry, threatening, mean “Come Rain or Come Shine” which overwhelmed everyone.
One of her most recent road gigs was touring with a show entitled “Three Mo’ Divas.” She received a call from the agent and he told her they were going on a nationwide search for the cast. She told him to call her back when he got back to New York. She then worked with her classical coach and landed the job. Reed brought up on stage Janinah Burnette who played Mimi in the Broadway “La Boheme” and the two of them did an extraordinary duet, with Reed’s contralto perfectly matching Burnette’s soaring soprano. This led to the first standing ovation. When Burnette left the stage, Reed did an outrageously animated “Fever,” full of bumps and grinds and stage action!
Reed told us she had been working on a workshop of an original musical by Scott Thompson and Fred Barton based on the music of Harold Arlen in which she plays Panama Jones, a casino owner whose partner and lover is cheating on her. With Fred Barton on the piano, Reed did a heart-breaking “I Wonder What Became of Me,” easily the best version I have ever heard of that cabaret standard. Then, joined by three other cabaret and Broadway performers, Christina Bianco, Anastasia Barzie, and Luba Mason, the four of them did a mash up of “Stormy Weather” and “The Man That Got Away,” each one of them stunning and each one of them in their individual parts terrific. Another standing ovation! Barton’s arrangement was great! When they left the stage, Reed ripped into “Blues in the Night,” giving each musician a chance to shine as she fiercely sang that standard!
Reed then described her absence from the performance scene wanting to spend time with her mother who was so nurturing all her life. She told us one of the songs her mother sang every day, when she was going to the grocery store, going to the bank, because it was her philosophy of life. Reed sang that song, another Billie Holiday standard, “God Bless the Child,” but she sang it with all dramatic stops out and her face was a savage picture of anger and pride. Another standing ovation.
Phil Geoffrey Bond appeared on stage and told us how Reed was in the audience for his Sondheim Unplugged series and accepted his invitation to join the program. He requested she sing one of the songs she had sung there. It was unplanned but she told McDaniel the tempo and she acted and sang the best “Losing My Mind” I have ever seen since Dorothy Collins! The audience again stood up and cheered. Then she said she had to do a song that everyone had requested, her big number from “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” Taking command of the full stage, Reed ripped into “Sweet Georgia Brown” and the crowd stood up like a shot! She could have continued all night but there was another show scheduled.
Please look for Vivian Reed to do repeat engagements. You must not miss this great artist who is at the peak of her powers and still has more energy and power than cabaret performers half her age! It is the best female major artist’s show I have seen this year! If you’ve never seen Vivian Reed in action look her up on youtube.com