Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Lewis was nominated for a Tony Award for his searing portrayal of Porgy in The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and was seen by millions when he played Caiaphas in the live TV production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2018. He also recorded two albums, "This Is the Life!" in 2008 and in 2018, "The Norm Lewis Christmas Album." Songs from both albums were featured in the concert, including a fun and upbeat "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music that opened the show.
The first part of the conversation focused on how Lewis found his way to Broadway, since he didn't go to a performing arts school, which is the way many others end up finding theatre work. He started singing in the choir at his church and also competed in "Star Search"-type contests at bars in the cities in which he lived in Florida. He added that singing had always been a hobby to him as he was focusing on a career in the newspaper advertising business. One night at one of these singing competitions he met a casting agent for a cruise line who offered Lewis a job singing on the ship. He said he went to his boss and told them of the offer and his boss said that he should take it and that if it didn't work out, he'd always have a job back at the paper. As Lewis explained, it was because of that person that he made it to Broadway.
Lewis made his professional debut in the tour of Once on This Island, and also appeared in the recent Broadway revival. His performance of "Waiting for Life" from the show was gorgeously sung. He Broadway debut was in The Who's Tommy and he spoke about how sometimes people in the audience were confused, thinking the Who would be in the show. He also talked about how Johnny Mathis had always been an idol of his and how thrilling it was when he got to sing a duet with him at a benefit. His delivery of one of Mathis' biggest hits, "Misty," was lush and romantic.
He also sang a beautiful version of "On Borrowed Time," a song he sang at another benefit Rudetsky was involved with that caught the attention of composer Henry Krieger. Lewis said it was from that benefit that he ended up getting his first Broadway lead rolein Krieger and Bill Russell's Side Show. Other songs in the concert included a jazzy and swinging take on "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" from My Fair Lady and a firm delivery of "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha, which he said is still a dream role of his to play one day.
Lewis played Javert in the U.K.'s 25th anniversary concert of Les Misérables, which was shown in movie theatres and on PBS and later released on home video. He sang "Stars," his solo from that show, with a strong connection to the lyrics and a clarity in vocal delivery. Rudetsky then started playing the introduction for that show's "The Confrontation" and the two of them delivered a spirited take on it, with Rudetsky adding that it's nice Lewis remembered the lyrics since he said it wasn't a planned part of the concert.
Lewis then sang a wonderful version of "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin" from Porgy and Bess, which he started in the way the song was written for the original opera and then segued into how it had been adapted for the recent Broadway revival. He mentioned that playing the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera had always been his dream role. When he played the role, he was the first African American to do so on Broadway and his beautiful delivery of that show's "The Music of the Night" was a knock out, with sustained high notes that soared.
Last year, Lewis played Harold Hill in The Music Man at the Kennedy Center and his delivery of "Trouble," which ended the concert, included Lewis asking for the audience to sing the backup vocals for the song, and they obliged in stellar fashion. Lewis came back for an encore of "Before the Parade Passes By" from Hello, Dolly!, which Rudetsky mentioned was the song Lewis sang at an audition when he first met him almost thirty years ago.
Throughout the concert, Lewis' warm, smooth vocals were matched by the incredible intensity and emotional range he brought to each song. Rudetsky was in hilarious form and his quips and comments got big laughs, while the questions he asked of Lewis were both personable and insightful. Rudetsky mentioned that while this was the last show in this season's series of Scottsdale shows, that they were already lining up dates for next year. While these concerts may differ from usual shows in which a Broadway performer sings an evening of songs, they also enable the audience to find out about the performer's experiences through Rudetsky's interview segments. For any Broadway fan I highly recommend checking out future concerts in this series.
Norm Lewis with Seth Rudetsky was presented at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts on March 6, 2020. Information for upcoming concerts at the SCPA can be found at www.scottsdaleperformingarts.org.