André De Shields

May 15, 2012 | By | Add a Comment

“Black By Popular Demand”

Laurie Beechman Theatre  –  May 4, 11, 18

It has been a while since André De Shields—celebrated for his work on and off Broadway, and once a fixture in New York nightclubs—has graced our cabaret stages. Thus, a packed house greeted him raucously at his show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, “Black By Popular Demand.”

Gliding toward the stage dressed in red choir robes, De Shields begins his show with a slow burn, easing into a pitch-perfect a cappella rendition of “Let the Good Times Roll” (Sam Theard, Fleecie Moore) with his two backup singers, Freida Williams and Marlene Danielle. It isn’t long before he removes the robe to reveal a red suit and begins working his famous pelvis in sensual rhythm and showing that his voice has lost nothing—at one point (and a few more times during the show), holding out a note for an impossibly long thirty seconds or so. Yes, it is a bit of showing off, but it fits his persona: one who has survived so much but whose life force will not be tamed or subdued. De Shields displays an intriguing mix of defiance, flamboyance, and pride—and his rapturous crowd ate it up.

His second number, his own “Boogie Rap,” channels at least a half dozen energetic pop numbers, among them “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Barbara Ann,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and “Bad Girls.” Throwing in some hand claps and some soft-shoe, De Shields works up a considerable sweat before he gets to the third number, “Mary Mack” (traditional), a rap and dance trade-off with Williams.

Besides the sheer joy and athletic vigor he brings to the stage—one surprise move has to be seen to be believed—De Shields does not shy away from a few serious moments, most memorable of which is a monologue he wrote called “Dating in Armageddon” (from his work-in-progress P.I.M.P., Positive Individual Making Progress), a reflective piece about all those men who were lost to AIDS—kind of like the AIDS quilt for the spoken word. The language of the piece and his well-paced and varied delivery of it are masterful. The room was at a hush.

Yet, for all of this, the best was yet to come. To witness De Shields—his visage like a lined granite, snow-capped mountain—work his pleading eyes and the grasping fingers of his outstretched arms as the intensity grows through the anthemic “Standing in the Need of Love” (Dennis Andreopoulos) is to experience a moment of greatness. The sheer strength of his plea made this reviewer weep. Soon after, he does it again, whispering the first line of the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (“I can think of younger days when living for my life was everything a man could want to do”). By the time he gets to the last line of the song (“Please help me mend my broken heart and let me live again”) he breaks free from the usual soft delivery and shouts, “I just wanna live and live and live!” My God, it’s powerful.

Other highlights include “Big Black Man” (David Yazbek, from De Shields’s Tony-nominated performance in The Full Monty) and a slow-groove “Hot Fun in the Summertime” (Sylvester Stewart). He closes with “Just Once” (Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann), a modern classic that has been done to death in karaoke bars and heard on soft-rock radio stations. Yet, when De Shields sings the words “Just once can’t we find a way to finally make it right/ Make the magic last for more than just one night,” it gets reinvented as a love song to the audience and heard as if for the first time.

Besides the two ladies singing behind him, the show features Larry Spivack on piano. Although Spivack offers a few unexpected comic bits and provides professional musical support, he seems a bit subdued for this kind of material (not that De Shields needs anyone pushing him); he’s not exactly a “white heat,” as De Shields describes him. Perhaps there’s someone more scorching?

If you are looking for a mellow, singer/songwriter groove or pleasing cocktail jazz, De Shields is not the guy to see and hear. If you want to be riveted, challenged, uplifted and brought to exhaustion, well, look no further. André De Shields is a New York treasure and a living legend. Celebration of that is in order.

 

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and freelances for other publications.

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