The dazzling Jennifer Holliday, who burst onto the Broadway stage with her Tony- and Grammy-winning role of Effie in the original 1981 production of Dreamgirls, has returned to 54 Below this week with six nights of performances that mark her debut in the Diamond Series, featuring limited seating for intimate top-of-the-line concerts accompanied by specially curated four-course dinners in the elegant supper club. And she is Effie-ing amazing!
Dressed in sparkling blue sequins suited to this jewel of an evening, the lovely, charming, and sensationally talented Holliday performed a set list of twelve songs that included a blockbuster selection of her personal favorites, interspersed with open and honest stories, on which she had time to reflect during the pandemic, about her background and career, her successes and struggles, and an underlying theme of growth through it all, noting that, at 62 (true, but hard to believe!), she’s still growing and going strong, and still has a lot to offer. Judging by this phenomenal performance, yes she is and yes she does.
A luminous Holliday (she actually radiates light) opened the show with an upbeat high-energy rendition of “I Ain’t Been Licked” (music and lyrics by Ashford and Simpson), accompanied by the smoothest of bands (Criston Oates on bass, Shawn Dustin on drums, Andrew Jagannath on guitar, Craig Hill on saxophone, Ryan Easter on trumpet, Javon Johnson on trombone, and music director Rashad McPherson on piano). She followed with the optimistic and meaningful songs of affirmation “It’s My Turn” (music by Michael Masser and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager) and “Pick Yourself Up” (from Swing Time, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields), and two numbers from the hit Broadway musicals in which she starred – “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls and “Push Da Button” from The Color Purple – putting her whole body and soul into her deep and resonant voice, unique vibrato, and profound passion for the meanings and melodies.
Between her powerhouse vocals, Holliday shared her love and gratitude to 54 Below for inviting her and to her fans for being there. She also paid homage to such luminaries as Barbra Streisand (from whom, she said, she “stole her long notes” and to whom she dedicated “The Way He Makes Me Feel” from Yentl); blues legend Etta James (whom she got to meet), hitting the longest note of the night in “At Last” (a song James popularized with her 1960 recording); and Dreamgirls director, choreographer, and producer Michael Bennett (who guided her early career) and composer Marvin Hamlisch (who was there for her at her low point) – the two artists she credits with having “helped to create and to sustain who I am” – relaying behind-the-scenes memories and dedicating her stirring rendition of “What I Did for Love” (from Hamlisch’s score for A Chorus Line) to both men and expressing the love she felt for them.
The rest of Holliday’s knock-out numbers comprised a medley of Cole Porter love songs arranged by McPherson (with her comment that “dating in your sixties is challenging!”); a consummately robust rendition of “River Deep, Mountain High” (suggested to her by McPherson and inspiring the audience to clap along); and an ardent “God Bless the Child” (one of her very favorites, with music and lyrics by the iconic Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr.), highlighting the range of her rich low voice and holding special meaning for her in this tough business. She closed the spectacular cabaret concert with “And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going” – her signature show-stopping torch song of unrequited love from Dreamgirls, bringing the best of New York nights to a conclusion with thunderous applause and a well-earned standing ovation.
You have four more chances to partake of this top-notch Diamond Series performance and premium gourmet dinner; it’s an unforgettable gem of an experience.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.
Jennifer Holliday plays through Sunday, February 26, 2023, at 8:30 pm (doors open at 6 pm), at 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, cellar, NYC. For tickets (priced at $316.50-491.50, including fees, the cost of dinner, the concert, tax, and tip; additional alcoholic beverages are billed separately), go online. All premium-seat audience members also have the opportunity for a meet-and-greet with the star following the performance. Masks are not required in the nightclub.