“Good evening, and welcome to our soiree,” said Leslie Uggams after the opening medley of “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York” and “New York, New York.”
And quite a fab soiree it is. The multi-talented, 68-year-old show biz veteran is kickin’ it old-school down at the Capital Repertory Theatre, and it’s a marvel to behold. Broadway show tunes, street corner doo-wop, big band swing, blues, Latin jazz, gospel, intimate ballads – Uggams does it all quite magnificently.
Don’t mistake “Uptown Downtown” for theater. Rather, it’s an autobiographical concert, in which Uggams utilizes her still supple voice for a music-and-stories evening that traces her long and varied career from the Apollo Theatre to “Sing Along With Mitch,” from a Tony Award winning turn on Broadway to the pioneering TV mini-series “Roots”… and beyond.
Uggams was a star before her tenth birthday, playing 29 shows a week at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre, and in “Uptown Downtown,” she pays tribute to the many greats who she shared the stage with – Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and more. Despite the fact that Uggams is neither a jazz nor blues singer, her musical homages ring heartfelt and true.
Of course, she doesn’t do it alone. Uggams is backed by a crack eight-piece band, and while some of them are her regular musicians, more than half of them are local players. But you’d never know that unless you read the program notes. They play like a seasoned, cohesive ensemble, and they each step out for some impressive soloing. And while they can conjure up brash, bonafide big band swing (as on the Duke Ellington medley that wraps up the first act), there’s also considerable variety to the sonic pallette, as the arrangements break down the band.
Musical director-pianist Don Rebic offers impressive cabaret cred to the voice-and-piano readings of the two tunes from “Hallelujah, Baby,” the Broadway show that earned Uggams her Tony. Even more impressive is Steve Bargonetti’s solo guitar accompaniment on the Drifters’ classic “Up On the Roof,” and the cymbal sizzle of Buddy Williams’ drums-only backing on “Hello Young Lovers.”
While television variety shows like “Sing Along With Mitch” (in which Uggams was the first African American performer to be featured on a weekly primetime network series) and her own 1970 “The Leslie Uggams Show” have been replaced by the current crop of instant-stardom talent shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice,” Uggams is proving that old-school musical variety is still viable and vital. It’s also one hell of an entertaining evening.
B.A. Nilsson’s review at Metroland
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
Bob Goepfert’s review at The Troy Record
Excerpt from Paul Lamar’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Don Rebic and director Michael Bush have masterfully paced the numbers, alternating styles, tempi, volume, and accompaniment. Percussionist Buddy Williams provides the backup for ‘Hello, Young Lovers’; trumpet player Michael Dietlein punctuates ‘Up a Lazy River’ a la Louis Armstrong; and Rebic provides some of the most remarkable accompaniment of the night on ‘My Own Morning’ and ‘The Man I Love.’ That Gershwin standard finds him going all over the place harmonically while Uggams holds the tune, and hold it she does. What a combo. What brilliant musicianship. And it’s to Uggams’ credit that she gives props to each of these gifted players.”
LESLIE UGGAMS SET LIST
Rhapsody in Blue (band only)
There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York/New York, New York
Them There Eyes
My Own Morning
I Was Born in a Trunk in Harlem, New York City
On the Sunny Side of the Street
Up a Lazy River
I Want to Be Around to Pick Up the Pieces/You Made Me Love You
Up On the Roof
Hello Young Lovers
Good Morning Heartache
It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing/Take the A Train
He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home
I Got Plenty of Nothin’
The Man I Love