Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Review: Tony Award Winning Dreamgirl Jennifer Holliday Wows Legendary Cafe Carlyle in Debut with R&B Infused Great American Songs


And I’m telling you: Jennifer Holliday is not going anywhere.

The Tony winning star of the original “Dreamgirls” hit legendary Cafe Carlyle last night with thunder and lightning.

Holliday has never done the famous Cafe before and rarely has done cabaret or jazz. But her preparation was acute and immaculate. She’s tackling the Great American Songbook through R&B and recalling the best of Ella, Sarah, and Dinah Washington.

Holliday has had a long up and down career, she’s the first to admit. She was only around 20 when “Dreamgirls” made her an international star, and that song — “And I’m Telling You” — became a good news- bad news deal. The song was such an emotional hit for women that Holliday says in her show, they were coming up to her in Target declaring it saved their marriages.

“Good for them!” Holliday says. “I had two and it didn’t do anything for me!”

She saves “And I’m Telling You” for the end. But it’s everything that comes before it that should draw crowds. She’s gone headlong into Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Nina Simone, and even Barbra Streisand, giving new life to “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” with ferocity and soul that makes a warhorse sound new.

Funny thing about Streisand: on stage Holliday recalls their odd connection. In 1984, Streisand asked her to sing the Oscar nominated “The Way He Makes Me Feel” from “Yentl.” “Barbra was on strike that year because she wasn’t nominated for Best Director,” Jennifer recalls. “So she asked me to do it.”

Holliday, then considerably heavier, brought down the house.

She brought it down against last night with numbers like “Come Rain or Come Shine,” which startled the Carlyle crowd with an infusion of gritty crescendo’s that probably shook the fancy hotel rooms above us. I loved how she researched the songs, pulling together a combination of lyrics for Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” and revealing the backstory for Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” — Mercer was having an affair with 19 year old Judy Garland when he wrote it for her.

Holliday says the night is about love, love, love, and she’s right. She might be in love now, and joked that she’s “not a cougar” and has an “age limit,” but is definitely dating younger guys. Good for her! They’re more likely to keep with her youthful outlook, appearance, and soaring voice.

As per often at Cafe Carlyle, the band comes in ad hoc and puts the whole thing together like the 24 Hour Plays. Holliday lucked out, as this group last night seemed like they’d been working together for years. Bobby Short himself would have been impressed. Their counterpoint to Holliday’s full throttle soul woke the old songs up. In that room, with so much history, they came alive.

Run– don’t walk– and catch Jennifer Holliday in this run. And let’s hope she comes back soon!

PS After this run, Jennifer Holliday had better be singing at every big New York charity event this summer and fall.

photo courtesy of David Andrako

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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