Photo Credit: Lev Radin
N’Kenge, in a whirlwind of turquoise, purple and sequins, raced onto the small stage at the Pierre Hotel’s 2E Bar, and for a little over an hour blew the room away with her show Legends, a nearly seamless evening of exciting vocal pyrotechnics.
Starting with a pulsating “One Night Only” (Dreamgirls, 1981) and ending with a moving “Home” (The Wiz, 1975), N’Kenge explored the legendary theatre Divas (and Divos) who have influenced her throughout her life and career thus far, including Audra McDonald, Ray Charles, and in a touching tribute: Aretha Franklin, with whom she had brief but influential encounter while N’Kenge was playing Mary Wells in Motown on Broadway.
She’s far too young to be doing a career retrospective, of course, but hey, “when ya got it, flaunt it” – “and boys, she’s got it,” to quote from two songs she did not sing (but should at some point.) Having studied at Manhattan School of Music and gotten her Masters at Julliard, her base training in opera (“I wanted to sing like Whitney Houston, but they made me study operatic technique first” she whined with adorably tongue-in-cheek humor) gave her a rock-solid foundation which has allowed her to switch from one vocal style to another with effortless aplomb, whether singing spirituals (“Ain’t That Good News”), rock (“Natural Woman”), or, of course, opera (a stunning “Donde Lieta” from Puccini’s 1896 masterpiece, La Boheme.) She ain’t no slouch in the B’way department, either: she sang a heartbreaking “Your Daddy’s Son” (Ragtime, 1998), and then got deliciously down and dirty with both “Mein Herr” (Cabaret – film version, 1972) and “When You’re Good To Mama” (Chicago, 1975). Saving the best for last, her smooth jazz stylings on Ray Charles’ “Come Rain or Come Shine” brought the evening to an intoxicating conclusion, and the house to its feet.
Her rapport with her musical director, Eugene Gwozdz, was in no small way part of the success of the evening; his almost constant (and reportedly improvised) underscoring throughout her patter gave an added lift to a show already bursting with life. Her patter, though, while delivered with polish and panache, was often of the “[Diva’s name here] influenced me this way” or “and then I did that” variety; despite her obvious – and genuine – connection to her audience, one still longed for a more personal touch to her storytelling.
Nonetheless, it was her powerhouse voice that carried the evening here, and the news that she’ll be starring in Dorothy Dandridge, a new musical about the first African American woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and which will be opening at Theater 80 St. Marks next June, gave her audience something to look forward to experiencing. Because one night only – as this show was – was not enough.