Earlier in the pandemic, the temporarily shuttered supper club Feinstein’s/54 Below streamed a selection of shows from their archive on YouTube. The streams were shot B-roll style from the back of the house and captured the stage lighting without any adjustment and with no sound mixing beyond what was done live in the room. They were enjoyable enough when we thought we’d all be back in a theatre in the summer, or in the early fall, or – you get it. But as New York’s theatres and live music venues have now been closed for almost ten months, and as streaming performances have grown in their place, it was clear that that initial offering was not sustainable.
The team at Feinstein’s/54 Below have pivoted in a major way. Their new series, 54 Below Premieres, turns the intimate cabaret space into a studio where four HD cameras capture the performer and band with exquisite sound and crystal clear imagery. The second event in this series, Norm Lewis: Christmastime is Here!, kicks off December 17 with a hefty dose of holiday cheer. Lewis’ twinkling eyes and bright, open presence are welcoming, and his deep baritone wraps itself around the song list. There’s no end of holiday specials to choose from, but Lewis is immediately comforting in a way that feels like a soothing balm for the end of a turbulent year. It’s nothing but joy to sit with him for ninety minutes. I only wish I’d had some cocoa and a fire going.
The show kicks off with a camera picking up Lewis’ arrival on 54th Street and his descent into the glowing, ruby red heart of 54 Below. It brought a tear to my eye and it had just begun. (I miss those stairs! I miss being stressed that I’ll lose my coat check ticket!) As Lewis goes through the doors to the stage, the camera wisely cuts away, eschewing any glimpse of the vacant dining room. The image stays on the playing space and keeps the darker reality outside the frame. Lewis’ patter acknowledges the pandemic several times – how could it not? – but it isn’t visually in the foreground. We don’t need to be reminded that there’s no one there. It’s all we’ve thought about for months. I don’t normally advocate for escapism, but what a treat it was to hear some Christmas carols and not stare at empty chairs.
The song list is typical holiday fare at first. There’s “My Favorite Things” (not a Christmas song, but a song about distracting yourself from something scary, so…appropriate), “Christmastime is Here”, and a stirring “Little Drummer Boy” featuring an excellent percussion solo by Perry Cavari. Lewis kicks off like an old fashioned crooner, but does seem a little nervous at first. There’s some wavering in his voice, but the minor imperfections just made it feel more live. Lewis is fully relaxed by the time he tears into “Mary, Did You Know?” and he sings with a full-throated passion directly into the camera.
I was less enamored of his lyrically revised “Santa Baby” in which he asked for a Rolex instead of a sable and encouraged Santa to “think of all the hotties that I haven’t kissed.” The latter verses turn into a bro-down where Lewis stops calling Santa “baby” and calls him “pally”, “buddy”, “papi”, and “dude”. By shifting the perspective of the song, its purpose also shifts. If the singer isn’t seducing Santa for gifts, he’s just making a list.
There are Broadway songs in the second half, some he’s performed in shows before and some he hasn’t. Lewis played Javert in Les Misérables and says he was always jealous that the Valjeans got to sing, “Bring Him Home”, so he takes a turn here. He sings it well and connects to the lyric, but it feels a little out of place after what’s come before. He’s joined by his frequent co-star Sierra Boggess for the duet “Lovers on Christmas Eve” from I Love My Wife, a mostly lackluster song, but it’s charming to see these old friends sing and then doff face masks and dance arm-in-arm. Later in the show, Lewis – the first African American to play the eponymous Phantom on Broadway – sings a deft “Music of the Night” that benefits from his having performed it countless times before.
Most notable is a trio of songs that Lewis dedicates to the memory of George Floyd, to the Black Lives Matter movement, and to his Da 5 Bloods co-star, Chadwick Boseman, who passed away suddenly in August. One of these is a downtempo version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” that culminates with Lewis shouting “BLACK LIVES MATTER!” three times. At the beginning, I wasn’t sure if he would acknowledge everything that has happened this year on top of the pandemic, but was thrilled that he used his platform and what is a prime spot in his holiday show to support the movement so vocally and with such commitment.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the night came after that trio. Lewis sings “Home” from The Wiz with an ever-growing smile and a wide-eyed appreciation for life. He makes lyrics like “Suddenly my world has gone and changed its face…but I know where I’m going,” ring so true to the moment, so true to what has happened to all of us this year. Our version of Oz isn’t in Technicolor and we haven’t been easing down any roads, but the end is in sight. Lewis communicates this message of hope through the song and it is the most connected he is the whole night. It’s a glorious performance and encapsulates the bliss of seeing him perform this show at Feinstein’s/54 Below. I can’t wait to have a cocktail and hear a tune there as soon as it’s safe to do so.