Vivian Reed

June 24, 2014 | By | Add a Comment

Vivian ReedThe last time I saw Vivian Reed perform was at Rainbow & Stars in 1996, when she was one-third of the cast of a revue called “20th Century R&B…A Musical Celebration.” She was sensational and I wrote glowingly about her. In her recent engagement at 54 Below, she was still sensational; however, it saddens me to say that I was not so enraptured this time.

She still has commanding stage presence. When she performs, it’s as though there were an irresistible force field surrounding her. Even when she’s just standing there—well, she never just stands there, for there’s always an inner energy working—she draws us to her. Her looks are striking—handsome as well as beautiful. Her body movements are graceful, sensual, and hypnotic, and her voice is powerful and expressive.

The evening got off to a blazing start with Oleta Adams’s “Circle of One” in a driving arrangement. Reed, her backup singers (Bertilla Baker, Chapman Roberts, Raun Ruffin) and the band, conducted by pianist Jason Yarco, provided an aurally and viscerally exciting experience. (The other band members were Clyde Bullard on bass, Greg Barrett on Drums, Henry Young on Sax, and Ray Naccari on Synthesizer.) “Hold On I’m Comin'” (Isaac Hayes, David Porter) followed, with Reed’s body in constant sexy motion (slinking, bumping, grinding—at one point accompanied by rapid-fire vocal mumbles). It didn’t matter what the lyrics were—they were being used as a vehicle for a fascinating performance.

A clue to what lay behind her approach came later in the evening when she expressed her view that when you do a song, you should make it your own. Now, the words to “Hold On I’m Comin'” are simple-minded and repetitious, so the arrangement and/or the performance have to come to the rescue—and they did. However, at this point, the program turned to standards, and the limitations of taking songs with exceptional music and finely crafted lyrics and making them “her own” became evident.

She delivered a pairing of “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?)” (Jimmy David, Roger Ramirez, James Sherman) and the Gershwins’ “The Man I Love” accompanied by an assortment of über-theatrical gestures (Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard came to mind). Did they relate to or illuminate the meaning of the song? Not particularly. On Arlen and Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine,” she wailed, got down, and burdened the song with arbitrary vocal effects—e.g., “days may be cloudy or sun-NEE, we’re in or we’re out of the mon-NEE,” with the second syllable of sunny and money delivered an octave or two higher and piercingly. Why?

I agree with Reed that songs need not be given their conventional treatment. However, in interpreting a song there is plenty of latitude to make it one’s own while still honoring and communicating its intent, especially the lyric. For example, it would have been interesting if she had taken a completely different tack with the Oleta Adams song—its lyric could sustain a sensitive, more thoughtful interpretation. On the other hand, her approach worked with “Fever” (Eddie Cooley, Otis Blackwell) because the song supports it: with her sultry, bumps-and-grinds delivery, when she sang “he gives me fever,” she was totally convincing.

With a couple of other standards, the vocal arrangements were problematic. She sang Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” alongside soprano Andrea Jones-Sojola, who provided plaintive and haunting non-verbal vocal accompaniment. It sounded beautiful, but the dramatic impact of this stark, remarkably powerful song was buried. In conjunction with an Arlen musical, One for My Baby, which is being developed, orchestrated and co-authored by Fred Barton and director/choreographer Scott Thompson, Reed was joined by singers Bertilla Baker, Luba Mason, and Lindsay Roginski, with Barton at the piano, to sing “Stormy Weather” (Arlen, Ted Koehler), mashed up with (and that is the right term to use) some of “The Man That Got Away” (Arlen, Ira Gershwin). Why combine the two songs?—each is diminished and the meanings of both get lost. The four ladies produced a heap of good singing, and while it sounded glorious, what they sang was an arrangement with a capital A, not the songs.

Happily, with a bravura performance of Billie Holiday and Herthur Herzog, Jr.’s “God Bless the Child,” Reed closed the show in top form. However, as far as the audience was concerned, she could do no wrong. They ate it all up and cheered at everything. But I left thinking how great the evening would have been if only Reed had harnessed—not reined in, but focused—her prodigious talent.

54 Below  –  March 31, April 14, May 20, June 19

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over twenty-five years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.

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