Assessment: Jennifer Holliday, vulnerable and resplendent, shines in Valais
When Jennifer Holliday performed her signature song, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” at the Tony Awards last month, spectators at the Winter Garden Theater as well as those watching on Paramount + received a thunderous upgrade. on the meaning of “showstopper”.
Holliday sparked an earthquake on Broadway in 1981 when she featured the number near the end of the first act of the musical “Dreamgirls”. New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote that “if the curtain didn’t fall, audiences would probably be cheering Jennifer Holliday until dawn.”
On Saturday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the older, more glamorous, and more ruminant Holliday threw herself again into what she self-mockingly called her “one shot.” When she sang the anthem on Broadway in her early twenties, she said she was mystified by the “beg and plead”.
With two weddings behind her, she said she finally understood the song. But rather than play on emotional desperation, she seemed to be singing for a part of herself – resilient Holliday reassuring painfully vulnerable Holliday that she wasn’t going anywhere.
At the age of 61, in what she called her “third act,” she is philosophical about her career, which she says has had more lows than highs. The ups, which include a Tony for her performance as Effie Melody White in “Dreamgirls” and two Grammys, were glorious in every way.
But the troughs were long and lonely. Watching the movie “Judy” during the pandemic, she said, she could relate to Renée Zellweger’s portrayal of Judy Garland, even though alcohol and drugs weren’t her problem. The desolation left by fame’s inconstancy struck a chord.
“And I tell you,” asked whenever she’s on the bill, became her version of “I’m still here”. Yes, she always hits rock bottom when she sings it. But it is his faith in his ability to rise that allows him to rise with maturity.
Holliday has spoken openly about his health issues, including multiple sclerosis, clinical depression, and weight loss surgery that transformed his appearance. The gratitude for surviving has eclipsed the fear of being left behind.
The story behind the music – like everything that happens with a diva who has been courageously, if at times rude, open about her professional and personal struggles – is complicated.
Famous in her early twenties as a Broadway supernova, Holliday rose to success as an R&B and gospel singer. But as the music industry in the 1980s became more concerned with the appeal of video than singing talent, Holliday received the blow, much like the overweight Effie in “Dreamgirls”.
Broadway, not exactly offering her opportunities even after she demonstrated what she could do, was hardly a refuge. And after flirting with the spotlight as a recording artist, it’s not clear that the less lucrative eight-show-a-week grind was still his dream – although in the end, it’s a loss. of Broadway that Holliday has only made sporadic returns as a glittering replacement in longtime musicals. .
Holliday apologized for her performance at the Bram Goldsmith Theater in Wallis. She missed a few words and was out of step with a group of local musicians she was performing with for the first time. But there was no need for contrition. The audience continued to burst into spontaneous standing ovations.
The concert, aptly titled ‘Here’s To Life’, was intimate and electrifying. Holliday can still sing. The power of her voice is accessible at will, even if she does not blow as before. The technique guides and protects its volume dial. But it is the dark undertones and subtle melodies of the South that permeate the emotional color and momentarily make others’ songs their own.
The arrangements were not all fully worked out. Holliday joked to the masked audience that we were all, herself included, picking up the pace with the live performances. She delivered “The Way He Makes Me Feel” as a tribute to Barbra Streisand, whom “Dreamgirls” director Michael Bennett asked her to study. She thanked members of the audience for their patience after offering her version of “Skylark,” but the fusion of story and song that Bennett tried to convey via Streisand remained.
The evening shifted into high gear when Holliday entered “Dreamgirls” territory. A slow, sad and searing rendition of “One Night Only” paved the way for “I Am Changing”, which was prefaced by a long confession. Running for her life, she said, took work. She always tries to grow up, always tries to be present. The song was kind of a mantra for her. When she sang Effie’s act number two, she brought in every ounce of that story. The fervor of his performance was an act of redemption. The audience rose like a flame, fire meeting fire, when she was done.
She seemed to be having issues with the tempo of “God Bless the Child”, but she slowed down the orchestra, led by music director Herman Jackson, and fell into an improvised rhythm which was one of the highlights of the evening. . The intersection of jazz, blues, gospel, and soul is where Holliday is most distinctly herself – freest and happiest. A program perhaps more focused on this mode would be America’s most sought-after cabaret.
She paid tribute to her late friend Marvin Hamlisch, who threw her a lifeline of orchestral singing as she faced oblivion, singing her classic “The Way We Were”. Performing two Streisand songs on the same night takes courage, but Holliday succeeded by modestly taking them to idiosyncratic corners.
Of course, she brought the house down when she closed the series with “And I Am Telling You”. A reminder of “At Last” was hardly necessary and almost too much. Holliday’s generosity was mixed with insecurity. She felt bad that the evening had not gone perfectly, even though the audience was hoarse with exultation.
Holliday, still a work in progress, deserves to settle in its shine. Seeing her on stage reminded me that it is not an artist’s proximity to perfection that moves us. It is the confrontation with a singular power. On Saturday in Beverly Hills, Holliday honored his audience with a gift that could never be adequately repaid.