Leslie Uggams

April 3, 2010

“Uptown, Downtown” 

Café Carlyle  –  March 30 – April 17 

Lone Scherfig’s Oscar-nominated 2009 flick, An Education, has plenty to tell us about where we really acquire our significant learning. Leslie Uggams knows all about it. In her first Manhattan cabaret stint (at the Café Carlyle), the now-sexagenarian singer does a fine job of letting us know which college of musical knowledge was the one where she matriculated for her degree.

When she was 9, she signed up for the weekly competition at the Apollo, walked away with it and continued to win for so long that not only did she appear on that revered stage until she was 16, but she went on the road as prodigy and protégé to established greats Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.

(What, no Sarah Vaughan?)

She reviews the lessons assimilated during an electric segment of her “Uptown, Downtown” act by tooting an Armstrong-influenced “Lazy River” (Hoagy Carmichael-Sidney Arodin), a Fitzgerald-influenced “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (Fitzgerald-Al Feldman), and a Washington-influenced “I Wanna Be Around” (Johnny Mercer-Sadie Vimmerstedt). What made her tangy interpretations even tangier was the little bit of each of her mentor’s style that she interpolated.

What she picked up from each of them was plain to see and hear. From Fitzgerald, it’s the straightforward phrasing. From Washington, it’s the clipped consonants that give everything a seductive crispness. From Armstrong, perhaps most obviously, it’s the broad smile, the unadulterated joy of performance. Unmistakably pleased to be in front of the supper-club crowd—or giving a good imitation of that sort of entertainer’s pleasure—she beams from her opening, “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” (DuBose Heyward-Ira Gershwin-George Gershwin), through to her encore beg-off, “Love” (Ralph Blane-Hugh Martin).

The “Uptown Downtown” program (which she played earlier at the Allen Room) refers to the uptown roots she never means to disclaim and to the downtown career she’s had on- and off Broadway, starting with Hallelujah, Baby!, for which she won the 1967 Tony by, among other things, chanting the Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Jule Styne “My Own Morning” and “Being Good (Isn’t Good Enough),” both of which she reprises here. Incidentally she—with Don Rebic at the piano, Aaron Heick on woodwinds, Steve Bargonetti on guitar, Ray Kilday on bass and Buddy Williams on drums—sets out the theme by changing some lyrics to Leonard Gershe’s A Star is Born medley binder, “Born in a Trunk,” a clever little gimmick, indeed.

There’s one obvious Uggams influence whom she doesn’t initially mention, although it’s unmissable: Lena Horne. Bearing a strong resemblance to Horne, as she always has, Uggams possesses more than a modicum of the lady’s pizzazz—enough so that she includes a devastating “Stormy Weather,” now a part of the show of the same title she’s performed out of town and is hoping to bring to Broadway.

What Uggams doesn’t have at her core is the anger Horne acquired over the years that ultimately became an indelible part of her on-stage manner. No question, however, that Uggams can bring it on when she wants. She has done precisely that in some of her more recent acting assignments, such as August Wilson’s King Hedley II, which she played on the Great White Way in 2001, and On Golden Pond, which she played in 2005. She surely brings conviction and fathomless regret to Jerry Herman’s great torch song “If He Walked Into My Life,” an item she’s made hers since she began honing it when appearing in the revue Jerry’s Girls.

Although Uggams talks uptown and downtown, she overlooks midtown, which is to say that the one prominent aspect of her past she leaves out is Columbia Records and Mitch Miller, the man who put her on the map with his NBC television hours. Oh, well, you can’t include everything, and what she does include is the stuff of top-notch nitery fare.



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