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Hallelujah, Baby

by B.A. Nilsson on July 20, 2011

Uptown, Downtown

With all eight pieces of the band wailing as Leslie Uggams gives a powerhouse treatment to “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” you can’t help but be impressed the energy. It’s a great sound, reminding us of the majesty of jazz-inflected music and song.

But Uggams’s own instrument is mutli-hued, and there’s just as much energy in the delicacy of the Goffin-King anthem “Up on the Roof”, which, delivered as a wistful ballad with only the affecting guitar work of Steve Bargonetti behind it, is one of the show’s most magical moments.

Uptown, Downtown came to Capital Rep for a two-week stay, and I wouldn’t let this one get past you. The remarkable singer-actress pays tribute to her long career (she started performing while still in single digits), framed by the contrast between her uptown (Washington Heights) childhood and her eventual (downtown) Broadway career.

Her most notable Main Stem, appearance was in the show Hallelujah, Baby, written by Jule Styne with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and two of its songs were featured, both performed to music director Don Rebic’s solo piano: “My Own Morning” and “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough.”

The first Broadway show Uggams saw was The King and I, and her version of “Hello Young Lovers” was sung to Buddy Williams’s drumming—mostly ride cymbal and bass drum, with tasty accents.

If she didn’t give us anything from Anything Goes or Thoroughly Modern Millie, two of her more recent shows, she more than made up for it with the two dozen she chose, all of them connected, via the fascinating stories she told, with her life and the lives of the performers who most influenced her.

Some of them were on the Apollo Theater bill with her, a venue she worked between the ages of nine and 16, and thus she paid tribute to Louis Armstrong (“Lazy River,” featuring nice trumpet work by Michael Dietlein), Ella Fitzgerald (“A-Tisket, A-Tasket”) and Washington Heights neighbor Frankie Lymon and the doo-wop sound (“Up on the Roof”).

Uggams and her musical crew are skilled at adapting material for her purposes; thus, the show’s opening, featuring clarinetist Lenore Aldi-Snow swooping through the opening of “Rhapsody in Blue,” soon turned into Gershwin’s “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York” with “Rhapsody in Blue” figures behind it and a natty interpolation of “New York, New York” emerging from “On the Town.”

More Gershwin came later in the show: a definitive “Summertime,” bluesy without flailing all over the map, and “I Got Plenty of Nothin’,” with flute and synthesized vibes in the surprising mix.

“Born in a Trunk,” from A Star is Born, was refit to salute Harlem and the Apollo, while her salute to Dinah Washington was a medium-tempo rendition of “I Want to Be Around (to Pick up the Pieces)” interwoven with “You Made Me Love You,” which Uggams deftly infused Washington’s tone and inflection.

Uggams tonal vocabulary is amazingly colorful, much more detailed than what is thought of as a “Broadway” sound. Billie Holiday’s signature “Them There Eyes,” began slow, with a deep richness about it, then swung into double time; Holiday also inspired the choice of “Good Morning, Heartache” which became a slow, bluesy ballad with the band.

The first half finished with mini Ellington tribute: “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Take the A Train,” both swung with a feeling that Duke would have enjoyed.

Many singers before Uggams have paired Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” with Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays,” but her version—again pairing her only with guitarist Bargonetti for the first song—was so heartfelt that even lyricist Otto Harbach’s annoying use of the word “forsooth” in the second song didn’t have the fingernails-on-blackboard quality I usually suffer when hearing it.

Alongside her rhythm section were five excellent local hires: Aldi-Snow, Dietlein, trombonist Ben O’Shea, bassist Mike Wicks and Vincent Bonafede on keyboard.

The busy Uggams—who developed Uptown, Downtown early last year and has presented it at the Pasadena Playhouse and Manhattan’s Café Carlyle, among other venues—is also working on a theater piece about Lena Horne, and, appropriately, belted out a magnificent “Stormy Weather” as a program closer.

“What’s an ‘Uggams?” the singer asked, beginning a charming story about how her search for her own roots led to an acclaimed role in Alex Haley-penned mini-series Roots. Everyone in the packed opening-night house knows the answer: An exemplar of how stories should be told and songs should be chosen and sung.