Actress and singer Linda Miller, who recently played Ronnie Spector in the HBO film Phil Spector, brings her imitative powers to life at Stage 72 with her show “Legendary Ladies of Music.” Not content to just vocally mimic the legends, Miller has a costume and wig change for each one, making a remarkable transformation into ladies as diverse as Tina Turner, Jessye Norman, and Moms Mabley.
Of course, each costume change takes several minutes, which gives emcee Justin Hart several opportunities to bring his Vegas-inspired Rat Pack look and sound to over a dozen songs throughout the show. Although his costume changes are minimal, he has as many songs as the star, herself, and he maintains that slick, slightly tongue-in-cheek persona throughout, offering renditions of popular favorites by Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, and Barry White, among others, flanked by two colorfully costumed female backup dancers. Not an easy task, but with his good looks and pleasing bari-tenor vocals, he pulls it off quite well. His commitment to the task is noteworthy—I’d be interested in seeing him in other projects.
The concept of the show is simple: the entire evening is presented as a lavish stage show, with Hart introducing the Queen of Jazz (Ella Fitzgerald), the Queen of Motown (Diana Ross), the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Tina Turner), the Queen of Opera (Jessye Norman), the Queen of Comedy (Moms Mabley), and the Queen of Salsa (Celia Cruz, as interpreted by Jennifer Lopez).
Miller then comes to the stage and does her thing. Often her costumes (designed by Miller’s mother, Peggy Miller; Linda designed the dancers’ outfits) got applause before she opened her mouth to sing. They range from a turquoise gown (with ample padding to make her plump) and the trademark glasses for Ella, a red gown and matching cape for the glamorous Diana, a housedress for Moms, and so on.
It is hard to pick a favorite. Miller, herself, probably most closely resembles Ross, and she has Ross’s sidelong flirtatious glances and wardrobe flourishes down pat. However, except in a few of the breathy phrases, Miller’s voice is pitched a little too low to sound convincingly like Ross throughout.
Miller’s Tina Turner, complete with the famous dance moves for “Proud Mary” (John Fogerty), was a crowd-pleaser, and she nails Tina’s energy and gritty vocal embellishments. An added treat was catching Miller’s slight grin at times—like a participant on the old Carol Burnett Show, I wasn’t sure if she’d be able to maintain her composure. She did, but her almost breaking up contributed to the fun.
Moms Mabley was an inspired choice, and it allows her to offer a little more patter, which up to that point is limited to one-liners—though they are effectively delivered. Also, coming next to last, it is an apt moment for the eleven o’clock number. She sings “Abraham, Martin and John” (Dick Holler), an actual Top Forty hit for Mabley in 1969. Singing about the assassinations (Lincoln, King, and both Kennedys), Miller-as-Mabley became teary-eyed in what turned out to be an unexpected but welcome departure from the comedic shenanigans that preceded and followed. As well as Miller sings, her acting is what brings the characters to life.
Nothing prepared the audience for Miller’s over-the-top but entirely credible impersonation of Jessye Norman. How she manages to belt out “Summertime” (George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward) and an aria in Italian with a solid soprano was rather mind-blowing; it earned her a mid-show standing ovation.
I have only a couple of criticisms. One is on the structure of the show. While it is obvious that time must be taken to do the costume changes, barreling through Hart’s and Miller’s songs one after another doesn’t offer enough of a variation in mood. My other reservation is that everything is sung to tracks. This works for Miller, because audiences want to hear orchestrations that are appropriate to each legend, but the tracks do a disservice to Hart—two or three songs, fine, but a dozen throughout the show is an overload of karaoke, even considering the pizzazz he brings to the role. These issues might take some brainstorming to rework, given budget and time constraints. The multi-talented Miller might want to take a step back from the director’s chair and let someone else take a shot at turning this into something great. She might also consider doing a one-woman show about any one of her idols, if she can come up with a good script.
The festive and creatively outfitted dancers (Mary Baynard and Grace Bennett) add a spark to the show, a high-energy 90 minutes of entertainment.
“Legendary Ladies of Music”
Stage 72 at The Triad – April 27, May 10, June 2
About the Author
Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and freelances for other publications.