Norm Lewis at Joe's Pub
May 9, 2005
By Rob Lester

Photo: ©
Some performers put you at ease right away. Why? Because from the first moments, you can see they are at ease themselves - comfortable, confident, clearly prepared and in really good voice. As his May 9th show at Joe's Pub demonstrated, Norm Lewis's style is in that "sit back and relax" category. There was no emotional agenda, no sense of trying to "prove" anything, just a desire to entertain. And entertain he did. The title of this solo cabaret debut, "Just Chillin'," had set the tone. But this was no mellow, laid back low-energy night. Quite the opposite.

On his night off from the musical Dessa Rose, Norm had plenty of vigor, spirits were high, and positive vibes were the order of the evening. The thing that kept hitting me was how healthy his voice sounds. He can sing big, but it's always clean and natural. One doesn't ever cringe, praying he'll make a reached-for note or feel concern about anything at all. You hear a key change coming? Not to worry. The voice is there; it's a given. And it's a very appealing voice. The relaxation came more from a decision to just hang out with the audience and present a bunch of songs without trying to get deep inside them all as individual characters in three-minute dramas. Thus, there was plenty of direct audience contact and more "entertaining" than "acting." For cabaret and theatre audiences used to having their own emotions taxed or drained, this was a refreshing change of pace. Norm had the night off from an emotional musical, and gave us a night off from the intense involvement often demanded of us.

From the outset, his intent was as clear as his voice. "I ain't got nothin' to tell you-all," he shrugged early on. To be sure we weren't expecting a set of dramatic musical theatre set pieces, he opened with a few feel-good pop tunes including Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" and James Taylor's "Your Smiling Face" (and there were many smiling faces in the standing room only crowd). Although he did not set out to be a performer at an early age (in fact, he had another career in the first chapter of his adulthood), the 42-year-old late-starter talked about his first musical influences and favorites. Taking one page from the songbook of each, he tipped his hat to role models Nat King Cole ("Mona Lisa"), Johnny Mathis ("Misty") and Tom Jones ("It's Not Unusual"). In the Jones number, we were briefly transported to Las Vegas and the crowd whooped, whistled and grooved along as Norm had fun with a big wink and healthy slice of "cheese" in a lounge-lizard crawl.

Then, theatre fans who know (or came for) his Broadway magnetism got their fix. Putting aside yesteryear's radio and vinyl record favorites, Norm gave out with "You Should Be Loved" from Side Show. In this number, which demands more involvement, he jumped into the sentiments, powerfully revisiting the intense song from the musical. After twenty minutes or so of just being Norm The Singer, he let another side show. A favorite among the more recent musical theatre canon, "I'd Rather Be Sailing" provided smooth sailing with the smooth-voiced Norm Lewis. The song is from A New Brain by William Finn - Norm appeared on the cast album of that show, and on Finn's Elegies and Infinite Joy albums (Infinite Joy was recorded at the very same Joe's Pub.)

Unannounced guest singer LaChanze waltzed onstage, singing with her usual glow. Norm's co-star in the current Dessa Rose, and once in a production of Baby, was a delight. Entering with "Waiting for Life" from the musical in which many first fell in love with her (Once On This Island), she was also a crowd-pleaser. The duo gave us a taste of their professional and personality chemistry with a bit of banter and song. Choosing "The Prayer" from the film Quest For Camelot as a later duet, they found a piece that let them be both dramatic and pop-sincere.

Sharing the stage in early grooves and the pre-encore finale were three other skilled and varied back-up singers: Aisha de Haas (sister of the dynamic Darius; the siblings appeared with Norm in the recorded Dreamgirls concert), Des'ree Weeks and Ashley Ingram (these two also co-wrote one of the Norm and trio numbers, the hit "You Gotta Be"). Their miking and mix could have been better earlier on, as it was only at the end when they ever so briefly sang solo that one could really clearly hear their vocal qualities. The band was lively and "hot" in the "chillin'" way specified the show's title. The arrangements did not draw attention to themselves, as new looks at the mostly familiar song choices was not the concept.

Moving toward conclusion, and moving away from Broadway and toward philosophical and inspiring pop with the gentle-but-building "If I Could," Norm soon indicated that he'd had a great time and would do more, but that they had to clear the room for the next show soon. David Friedman's excellent "On Borrowed Time" was the encore, although it didn't require the usual number of tissues because Norm gave it a feeling of carpe diem rather than bittersweetness.

Norm Lewis has entered the category of solid, reliable performers, voice and persona both extremely likeable. Always welcome are his contributions to albums, such as the new Hair CD which, like the May 9th appearance, was a benefit for The Actors' Fund. With talented, rich-voiced Norm Lewis, everyone within earshot benefits. He leaves one wanting more ... like another great theatre role or maybe a solo CD?

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