New York Times
Self-Aware as a Diva With Showy Peculiarities and Opinions
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
July 27, 2012
There are divas (run-of-the-mill pop stars with followings), superdivas (the Lady Gagas and Madonnas of the world) and mega-divas (the little-known but explosive volcano known as Jenifer Lewis). If you havenâ€™t heard of Ms. Lewis, who is appearing at 54 Below in an uproariously campy and profane one-woman show, â€œBlack Donâ€™t Crack,â€ youâ€™re not alone.
Ms. Lewisâ€™s swirling entrance (she was dressed in orange glitter and a turban) on Wednesday evening was so grand and gaudy it made Norma Desmondâ€™s descent on a staircase in â€œSunset Boulevardâ€ look like the timid steps of a wallflower. What qualifies her as a mega-diva is the size of her stage personality, combined with her raw talent. In her brashness, Ms. Lewis, a onetime member of Bette Midlerâ€™s backup group, the Harlettes, might be described as an African-American Bette Midler-plus.
Vocally Ms. Lewis is a pop-gospel belter in the â€™70s disco mode but with a sensitive side. Her mouthy comedy conveys an acute awareness of the absurdity of the outrageous self-glorification that is a divaâ€™s birthright and which she turns into knowing self-parody.
Ms. Lewisâ€™s engagement is her first in a New York club in many years. Over the past three decades, she has appeared in some 60 films (most recently â€œThink Like a Manâ€) and made 250 television appearances, including a regular stint on the Lifetime series â€œStrong Medicine.â€ But if Ms. Lewis, who is now in her mid-50s, has done well, she has yet to cross that threshold of public recognition from busy actress and cult entertainer into mainstream diva status.
There is seemingly no subject Ms. Lewis will not tackle. â€œBlack Donâ€™t Crackâ€ is the title of a funny song she wrote with Marc Shaiman that refers to the long line of African-American stars from Eartha Kitt to Halle Berry to the â€œ263-year-oldâ€ Tina Turner, whose faces donâ€™t age as visibly as those of Caucasian women.
Ms. Lewis was accompanied on piano by Mr. Shaiman, a close friend, sometime songwriting collaborator and the composer of â€œHairspray.â€ One of the showâ€™s high points was her lusty rendition of Mr. Shaiman and Scott Wittmanâ€™s â€œHairsprayâ€ showstopper â€œI Know Where Iâ€™ve Been,â€ a sturdy Broadway answer to Sam Cookeâ€™s â€œChange Is Gonna Come.â€
The running theme of Ms. Lewisâ€™s patter is her struggle with bipolarity and its effects on her behavior. She recalls unknowingly introducing herself as Mrs. Jesse Jackson to the real Mrs. Jesse Jackson at a political convention. Before her song â€œHot Flash,â€ she went into clinical detail about physical signs of aging and menopause and turned a touchy topic into a hilarious monologue.
The showâ€™s more tender moments included her original autobiographical song, â€œGrandma Smallâ€; Irving Berlinâ€™s â€œI Got Lost in His Armsâ€; and that cabaret war horse â€œHereâ€™s to Life,â€ which she said everyone had advised her not to sing. She did it anyway and applied her indelible personal stamp, shouting its affirmation, â€œfor laughs, for life, for love,â€ with the whooping exuberance of a performer who has clearly gone a long way toward conquering her personal demons.
Jenifer Lewis performs through Saturday at 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, Manhattan; 54below.com, (866) 468-7619.