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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Vanessa Williams
Arizona Musicfest
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Darkside and American Psycho

Vanessa Williams
Photo by Gilles Toucas
Courtesy of Vanessa Williams / Arizona Musicfest
Arizona Musicfest recently kicked off their 2019/2020 season with a concert by Vanessa Williams, who was making her Musicfest debut. Toward the beginning of her show, Williams mentioned that she wears a lot of hats. Not only has Williams recorded eight solo albums, appeared in dozens of TV shows and films, but the Tony, Emmy and Grammy nominee has also been in seven Broadway shows. She mentioned that Broadway is where she feels most at home. Her concert featured several songs from musicals she's been in along with many of her soft pop hits, all of which sounded excellent, backed by an exceptional band.

Williams was a theatre major at Syracuse University and her versatile voice is equally at home singing Broadway songs as well as jazz and pop. She has sold over six million records and received eleven Grammy nominations, including one for Best New Artist. The concert got off to a rousing start with "Work to Do," an upbeat song that really let the singer show off her vocal abilities. She followed this with some of her early pop hits, including "Dreamin," which was from her 1988 debut album and a number one hit on the R&B charts. She scored another hit on the Billboard charts with "Love Is," a love duet that was featured on the TV show "Beverly Hills, 90210," and her delivery of that song with her music director Leo Colon was both moving and powerful.

Williams was nominated for a Tony Award for her portrayal of the Witch in the revival of Into the Woods, and she sang a gorgeous version of "Children Will Listen" from that show. She paired it with "The Sweetest Days," a song Williams stated was written for her four children. She mentioned that she's been married three times and sang two other songs she recorded that deal with the highs and lows of relationships. First was the fast paced "Who Were You Thinkin' 'Bout?," a driving song with staccato infused lyrics that focuses on the questions someone thinks of when their spouse is having an affair. This was followed by the tender "Constantly," which centers on the thoughts a person has when they think about someone all the time and wonder if there might be more to their relationship beyond simply being friends. Both selections received impeccable deliveries from Williams.

The second part of her show kicked off with a moving rendition of the Oscar-winning song from Pocahontas "Colors of the Wind," which Williams sang the pop cover of and also performed at the Oscars. Williams is a Special Olympics Ambassador and for this song she was joined on stage by members of the Kellis High School Unified Choir. The emotion, energy and thrill the choir members brought to the number received a standing ovation from the Musicfest audience.

"Stormy Weather," one of the songs Williams sang when she appeared as one of the special guests in the Broadway run of After Midnight, received a gorgeous rendition in the concert, Williams mentioned singing it was a way to pay respect to her mentor Lena Horne. Williams played the role of Julie in the New York Philharmonic production of Show Boat, which was broadcast on PBS, and sang a stirring version of the ballad "Bill" from that show.

Her involvement with Into the Woods also paved the way for being asked by James Lapine to appear in the original production of Sondheim on Sondheim on Broadway. For the concert, Williams sang a gorgeous duet from that show which combined "Losing My Mind" from Follies with "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along. On Broadway, she sang that duet with Barbara Cook, who Williams said was a joy to work with, and here she sang it with backup singer Shelly Thomas-Harts. It's a beautiful arrangement of those two songs and both Williams and Thomas-Harts expertly found the emotion behind Sondheim's intricate and nuanced lyrics.

Williams talked about how both of her parents were music teachers and how she loved going to concerts when she was growing up. She said that one of the first people she saw in concert was Chaka Khan, then sang a fun version of Khan's hit "Everlasting Love," which Williams recorded on her album of the same name that featured covers of 1970s songs. The concert ended with the beautiful and charming "Oh How the Years Go By" before Williams came back for two encores: a soaring version of her biggest hit, "Save the Best for Last"; and the Latin-themed "Betcha Never," which had a few instrumental moments that let Williams show us her fine dance steps.

For every song she sang in her concert, Williams showed us how her voice has a beautiful richness to it plus a power that can turn from a whisper to a roar. Her phrasing is impeccable and she finds the nuance, meaning and emotion in the lyrics of each number. Her band, most of whom have been with her for over 20 years, are sensational. Williams performed at Arizona Musicfest's main venue of Highlands Church, which affords excellent, unobstructed sightlines and superb sound.

Vanessa Williams performed at Arizona Musicfest on November 8, 2019. Information for upcoming Arizona Musicfest concerts can be found at