“I stand before you humble,” Jenifer Lewis announces early on in her new show Black Don’t Crack at 54 Below. “As humble as one can be with all the gifts you see before you.”
As this powerhouse performer demonstrates in her first NYC cabaret gig in 20 years, she has no reason to be humble. The actress/singer has spent much of her career performing in film and television, but her true milieu is clearly strutting her stuff in front of a live audience — and not just in such Broadway shows as Hairspray.
“I love the theater,” she proclaims, before adding in mock consternation, “But all those other people onstage!”
Featuring accompaniment by pianist Marc Shaiman, who collaborated with Lewis on several original songs, the show (co-written by her and Marc Alton Brown) showcases her at her sassy best. While the new material is mainly satirical and the evening is laced with enough profanity to make Richard Pryor blush, Lewis also provides vivid reminders of her ability to wrest genuine emotion out of such ballads as her self-penned “Grandma Small.”
She begins the show in full diva mode, wearing an elaborate feather boa while singing the hilariously self-aggrandizing “Look at Me,” written by Shaiman. The fun continues with such numbers as “Black Don’t Crack,” in which she name-drops such figures as Diahann Carroll and Eartha Kitt; the menopause-themed “Hot Flash,” accompanied by flashing red lights; and “The 11 O’Clock Number,” complete with a snippet of “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy.
During the number “Sang Bitch,” she successfully commanded the crowd to stand up and shout out the title phrase, no small feat in the crowded club. “Oh my god, the omnipotence!” she crowed.
Constantly and uninhibitedly riffing in hilarious fashion with both the audience and the unflappable Shaiman, she went on so long that at one point she asked the club’s manager if she could keep going. Not surprisingly, she was given permission.
Highlights include her full-throttle rendition of Gnarls Barkley‘s hit “Crazy,” which she prefaced by joking about her own battle with bipolar disorder, and a soaring “I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray, co-written by Shaiman and the club’s creative consultant, Scott Wittman.
At the show’s end, she got choked up while paying moving tribute to Bette Midler, for whom she once performed as a Harlette and who was sitting in a prime banquette with Nathan Lane. Declaring that she learned to sing ballads by watching Midler from backstage, she proved that the lessons stuck with a powerfully moving rendition of the cabaret staple “Here’s to Life.”
- FREEZE FRAME: Jenifer Lewis & Marc Shaiman Play 54 Below! (broadwayworld.com)