Broadway Sings Rihanna

April 4, 2018 | By | Add a Comment

Rihanna may be to this era what Madonna was to the 1980s: a chart-topping, identity-shifting, fashion-forward, pop mogul. These days when kids bounce around their bedrooms and sing into a hairbrush, you can bet it’s often Rihanna they’re singing. As catchy and glossy as her superstardom is, she also has a fierce, truth-telling quality that catches the attention of adult artists. Producer-director Corey Mach’s Broadway Sings series has taken on several pop icons in concert tributes, each of which showcases working Broadway performers. This time, Broadway sang Rihanna at Chelsea’s Highline Ballroom.

With innovative arrangements and musical direction by Joshua Stephen Kartes, a wonderful band, and a stellar line-up of voices, the evening managed to elevate the concept to something more than just the entertainment value of the crossover between genres—despite sometimes relying on the fireworks of huge notes and melisma, tempting its audiences to wait to be impressed rather than being with the singer and the song throughout. However, that’s a fault of pop culture as we know it at this moment, and not only of this enjoyable evening in which we all got to live vicariously through the singers and pretend for ninety minutes that we had just won The Voice.

Each of the sixteen women in the all-female cast was up to the challenge of delivering the pyrotechnics in artistic and authentic ways. I’ll comment on some of the selections in which the arrangement or the singer offered something new or unexpected in comparison with the original. Kartes’s swinging big-band version of “S&M” (Ester Dean, Stargate, Sandy Vee) with Kennedy Caughell’s fantastically tongue-in-cheek and powerful delivery brought the audience to its feet. Caughell nailed the running joke of a dirty song getting a squeaky clean treatment, and it was the perfect example of how a show like this can work: the arrangement meeting the singer head-on and then surprising the audience. Kristolyn Lloyd killed it on “Only Girl in the World” (Crystal Johnson, Stargate, Sandy Vee) in a vintage arrangement reminiscent of Peggy Lee’s version of “Fever”; I loved her sultry, strutting exit to the back of the stage in the last few bars. Alexa Green soared over a minimalist arrangement of “Love the Way You Lie” (Skylar Grey, Eminem) showing especially adept musicality throughout and a stratospheric note that was coloratura-beautiful.

Kirstin Maldonado, a member of three-time Grammy-winning a cappella group Pentatonix, sang “Stay” (Mickky Ekko, Justin Parker, Elof Loelv). This mellow ballad didn’t quite give her the space to show her considerable skill, though we could always hear her clarity and mic technique, and it featured the backing vocalists with challenging close harmonies. Anastacia McClesky made the emotional push-pull expressed in the lyrics and the 6/8 meter of “What Now” (Olivia Waithe, Parker Ighile, Nathan Cassells, Rihanna) come vividly to life with her huge vocal range and crisp syncopation. Keri René Fuller gave it her all for “Half of Me” (Emeli Sandé, Naughty Boy, Stargate), with an engaging sound and the most integrated acting choices of the evening. Joanna A. Jones did an Amy Winehouse-inspired performance of “Disturbia” (Andre Merritt, Chris Brown, Brian Kennedy, Robert Allen), and we’d never have known that Onyie Nwachukwu was a last-minute cover for another singer: her version of the edgy “Russian Roulette” (Ne-Yo, Chuck Harmony) showed grounded confidence and beautiful texture. Caroline Bowman’s “California King Bed” (Andrew Harr, Jermaine Jackson, Priscilla Renea, Alex Delicata, Rihanna) was intimate and at ease with the rock/bluegrass-inspired arrangement. The set closed with Raena White’s performance of “Love on the Brain” (Joseph Angel, Fred Ball, Rihanna), which had a wonderful arc as she built the intensity of the story of obsessive love.

One thing missing from the evening was reference to Rihanna’s Caribbean heritage. With her Bajan accent and her songs showing dancehall influence, such as her debut hit “Pon de Replay” or the more recent “Work,” she is the pride of Barbados, and a nod to her musical roots would have been a welcome addition.

The series will next set its sights on American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson on June 18.

Highline Ballroom – March 26

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

From Canada, Penelope Thomas came to NY to study dance with Merce Cunningham; then through a series of fortunate and unfortunate events, she wound up back in singing and acting. Credits include lead vocals with FauveMuseum on two albums and live at Symphony Space, singing back-up for Bistro Awards director Shellen Lubin at the Metropolitan Room, reading poet Ann Carson’s work at the Whitney, and touring North America and Europe with Mikel Rouse’s The End of Cinematics. In Toronto, she studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music and cello with the Claude Watson School for the Arts, and in New York she studied music theory with Mark Wade. She's taught in the New School’s Sweat musical theatre intensive and taught dance in public schools and conservatories.

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