Jennifer Holliday’s powerful singing ability, on display last weekend during two local concerts with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington for its 30th anniversary, is, of course, well known and loved.
But two things about Saturday night’s concert stood out — how soft spoken and perhaps even shy she seems when she speaks and how vocally invested she is in each note she sings. The reservation she exhibits during between song patter makes for a real jolt when contrasted with the unabashed vocal fire she utilized when she sang. To some ears not steeped in black gospel musical traditions it may have sounded histrionic and overwrought, but nobody could claim she wasn’t giving 110 percent.
Her selections — four solos and two with the Chorus — were chosen clearly to give her plenty of room to wail, shout and grunt with as much abandon as she could muster. And she mustered plenty. You know she could take the middle-of-the-road Anita Baker approach if she wanted, but so could a zillion other female singers. It was way more fun to hear her let it rip and utilize the vast bounty of vocal reserves of which she possesses.
Her 1983 single “I Am Love” and a Mahalia Jackson cover, “Come Sunday” were fine, but the two “Dreamgirls” numbers — “I Am Changing” and, of course, her showstopping signature song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” were clearly what everyone was clamoring to hear.
“Changing,” especially, brought down the house as she repeatedly growled the climactic lines — “stop-aaaah …. Me-aaaaah!” From a pre-show mini-musical (more on that in a minute), the extremely predictable (but not in a bad way) set list and Holliday’s interpretations, this was clearly not an evening for subtlety. But sometimes that’s OK.
After a donation pledge from Chorus director David Jobin, who made a joke of having to come on stage immediately after Holliday finished “And I Am Telling You,” the singer returned to do two covers with the Chorus, a welcome change of pace that featured live accompaniment (Holliday sang her solos to pre-recorded tracks) and powerful, gospel-style backing vocals from the Chorus’s nearly 300 male singers.
Both were knockouts — R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” which closed the show, and the clear standout of the entire evening, a passionate and rousing arrangement (by Steve Milloy) of Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me” that everyone involved clearly had fun with.
During her solo set, a soft-spoken Holliday joked about menopause, a mid-life crisis and how she’s much happier and content at 50 than she was in her 20s and 30s. She seemed relaxed and genuinely happy to be there.
It was a long wait for Holliday, who didn’t appear until the second half. The first consisted entirely of a new one-act musical, “Alexander’s House,” by partners Michael Shaieb and Brent Lord that the Chorus commissioned.
Like many Chorus productions, it was performed with a small ensemble of actor/singers — all Chorus members — out front while the Chorus stood behind providing frequent vocal backing. “House” tells of a gay man who died leaving his partner and grown son to meet and hand over a summer beach house. Dramatically, it was maudlin, predictable and conceived without even a word or syllable that wasn’t instantly accessible and none-too-subtly crafted to elicit tears from the types who well up over Hallmark cards. But musically, it featured some lovely moments, especially the title tune which climaxed with the Chorus singing full throttle and offering the loveliest harmonies of the evening.
Other highlights were Alan Shorter’s “The Older I Get,” featuring soloist extraordinaire Justin Ritchie, and recognition of the Chorus’s “first decaders,” those who’d been in the group in the 1980s.