By: Patrick Christiano
Broadway legend, Jennifer Holliday, brought us into her world with an emotionally blazing display of her artistry through song and stories.
February 25, 2023: Jennifer Holliday’s return to 54 Below is simply sensational, an intimate mind-blowing adventure that chronicles her life in song with an artistry that is amazing to witness. In between songs the Tony and Grammy award winner reveals herself with candid self-deprecating accounts of her journey, often hysterical, but always poignant, in show business from age 19 to 62.
She came to New York from Riverside, Texas in 1979, landing her first role at the age of 18 and bursting onto the scene in the Broadway musical Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God. Then in only her second show she won a Tony Award in 1982 for creating the role of Effie White in Michael Bennett’s iconic musical Dreamgirls.
Holliday, who was a big girl back then, said she has lost over 200 pounds and is barely recognizable taking the stage in a three-piece fire engine red pants suit that showed off her slimmed down frame. However, her distinctive voice and style are instantly recognizable and have not been diminished. If anything, they have grown in authority. She commits herself so fully to the emotional story of each song with a depth of feeling that is so intense she will often squeeze out sounds with her contralto register that are almost primal. The result is extraordinary, exciting, and moving.
Holliday opened with Ashford and Simpson’s “I Ain’t Been Licked,” which she said has become sort of an anthem for her adding, “I want you to feel my soul and get to know me, my friends.” Then that is exactly what she proceeded to do through song and words in a thrilling cabaret performance that accumulated in depth with each song and story. Next was a sizzling rendition of Carole Bayer Sager’s “It’s My Turn.” Then came a jazzy “Pick Yourself Up” by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields
Another thrilling highlight came next, her second Act number from Dreamgirls, “I Am Changing, which Holliday acknowledged means so much more to her today because of new dreams. She even admitted, “This song has become a personal mantra for me, because we are all works in progress. She dedicated a remarkedly intimate “The Way He Makes Me Feel” from the film Yentl to Barbra Streisand, who asked her to perform the song at the 1984 Oscars because the Star was not going in protest. She had been snubbed and had not been nominated for Best Director for Yentl because she was a woman she felt.
And another highlight in an evening full of them was Holliday remarkably pulling out all the stops again on Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s stirring “At Last.” A surprising treat was Holliday rocking out on an out of character song made famous by Tina Turner that her good friend and musical director, Rashad McPherson, suggested she do “River Deep, Mountain High.”
Stunning renditions of “What I Did for Love,” from A Chorus Line and Billie Holliday’s iconic “God Bless The Child” came before she closed out the evening with her signature song, “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going,” from Dreamgirls by saying, “ I am grateful it has become a song of survival.” And there she was rising like a phoenix from the ashes with the entire room on its feet cheering for more.
The Jennifer Holliday band is Music Director/Piano: Rashad McPherson, Bass Guitar: Criston Oates, Drums: Shawn Dustin, Lead Guitar: Andrew Jagannath, Saxophone: Craig Hill, Trumpet: Ryan Easter, Trombone: Javon Johnson
Photography/Videos Barry Gordin