Club Review: Amber Iman
Her strong, range-y voice and statuesque looks make it no surprise that actress/singer Amber Iman is an award-nominated performer with a burgeoning career in theatre, including Broadway’s Soul Doctor (as Nina Simone), the National Tour of Hamilton, and various off-Broadway and regional productions. She has also contributed background vocals for several well-known stars. But none of that previous experience is enough to prepare for a cabaret show. In cabaret there is no director unless you are wise enough to work with one; there are no sets, no costumes, no script, and no fourth wall. You are just yourself on stage and whatever message you wish to convey is of your own choosing and your own design. It may sound simple, but it is not, as evidenced by the disappointing show Iman presented at Feinstein’s/54 Below.
It began on a most promising note with an instrumental prelude by Iman’s band, The Shimmers—music director Michael O. Mitchell on piano, Andre Cleghorn on bass, Jaylen Pettinaud on drums. They displayed such talent and camaraderie and joy that what we witnessed was much more of a conversation between artists than an arrangement. They delighted in each other’s playing and that delight was contagious.
The singer then entered to loud applause; there were obviously friends and family there to cheer her on. This can be a plus much of the time, but it can also be a minus—serving to give a performer license to go on in an unstructured, self-satisfied manner, believing that the audience will be with her no matter what. This can be very problematic for anyone who might choose to look critically at the performance. The opener was an oddly inconsequential choice, “Party in the USA” (Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, Jessie J, and Claude Kelly), which gained some unexpected heft in Iman’s slowed-down introductory verses, but lost any personality as the traditional dance rhythm kicked in and the vocal became all about musical phrasing and not at all about lyric phrasing. This impersonal performance continued in a multi-song medley—highlighting material from such luminaries as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Andre 3000, and others— that she christened the “Black Ass Medley” in an example of the level of class and wit in a lot of her asides. I am not prudish, and I was not offended, but her overuse of f-words, b-words, and s-words grew tedious.
She introduced the next song by referring to herself as “Anita Baker in heat”—an unfunny and inappropriate turn of phrase under the best of circumstances. She certainly had the chops for “Sweet Love” (Anita Baker, Louis A. Johnson, Gary Bias), but the song was done in by perfunctory storytelling and irritatingly lazy diction, which was a sore point for most of the night. In this instance, “Sweet love…” became “sweet lu…..” over and over and over. At times, on the songs with which I was not already familiar, I had a tough time figuring out what she was saying. One song that I thought might tap into something she had shown in the theatre was “Hold On” (Lucy Simon, Marsha Norman, from The Secret Garden), but she delivered it in broad strokes highlighting her notes and not her words, with no attempt to make the song her own.
I began to think that years of singing background, where the sound is paramount and words are basically placeholders for melody, had deprived her of a deeper connection with the material. For someone who talked on and on about purpose and value and meaning in overlong, quasi-preaching patter filled with empty, self-serving “Amens,” she lost all connection with the meaning of “U Gotta Be” (Des’ree, Ashley Ingram) as she centered on the repetitive melody and constant motion that detracted even more from the lyrics. Again, her sound could not be faulted but it just wasn’t enough.
There was extended, repetitive patter filled with clichéd platitudes about her therapist, often ending with a “life lesson” followed by a pause for grateful applause. This, coupled with repeated calls of “Sing along if you know it,” created further distance from any substantial connection to the material. There was a large, opaque music stand on which she placed a loose-leaf binder filled with her music and patter and, at the end of each song, she dutifully returned to it and turned another page. To add insult to irksome injury, the stand was literally blocking a good portion of the audience from fully seeing her. She also left the mic stand directly in front of her whether she was using it or not, further hiding her from the crowd. She may have been trying to compensate for the lack of the fourth wall I mentioned earlier. There was one last thing that I had never seen in a cabaret show; the singer would pause in the middle of a song or patter, turn to the piano and pick up a battery powered fan to cool herself off.
While Amber Iman’s talent certainly had thrills to offer, they were diminished by remaining solely musical, ignoring the thought and intent that informs the work of the best singers. I hope that she learns from this and focuses her attention on the flaws that overwhelmed this show before she returns to the cabaret stage.
Presented at Feinstein’s/54 Below on August 10, 12, 13, 14.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”