Watching Anika Noni Rose (seen above, photo by Andrew Macpherson) on the cabaret stage, you sense a superstar in the making.
The gorgeous Rose, all of 38, has already made a name for herself in the theater, winning the Tony Award for her performance in the Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori masterwork Caroline, or Change. On screen, she provided the voice of Tiana, Disney’s first African-American princess (in The Princess and the Frog) and she smooched and sang with Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce in Dreamgirls.
She has conquered stage, screen and TV (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, The Good Wife) – the cabaret stage is about the only performance arena she hasn’t yet made her own. But she’s working on it. In only her second solo cabaret act – her first in San Francisco – Rose demonstrated a sassy onstage persona, an appealing voice and a vintage collection of songs.
Part of the Bay Area Cabaret season at the Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel, Rose’s concert, which she had presented earlier this month at Lincoln Center as part of the American Songbook concert series, served a tribute to her late grandmother. The songs, mainly from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, showcased Rose’s high, bright soprano and her charming, sassy way with a lyric.
Looking absolutely gorgeous in a sparkly gold dress, Rose opened the show in the audience, inviting audience members to “Come On-a My House” while pianist/music director Eugene Gwozdz provided playful accompaniment from the smalls stage.
Though she warned that she wasn’t a “patter girl,” Rose’s between-song comments were actually a highlight of the hour-long concert. She said that being in San Francisco was “like coming home” because of the time she spent here in grad school at American Conservatory Theater (indeed, Carey Perloff, ACT’s artistic director, was at a table near the stage). In describing the songs to follow, she described them as songs she grew up with because they were her grandmother’s favorites. She also took a moment to diss popular music: “I don’t know if there’s anything on the radio right now we’ll be singing in 50 years.”
Some of her show’s highlights include Eartha Kitt’s “I Want to Be Evil,” “He’s Funny That Way” (a Daniels/Whiting hit for Billie Holiday), Kansas Joe McCoy’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?” (a Peggy Lee/Benny Goodman hit) and a spirited “Relax Max,” a Dinah Washington tune that involved some slapstick from pianist Gwozdz.
Like Diana Ross, Rose has a beautiful, light tone that is brightest in the upper registers and all but disappears in the lower. Miss Rose uses her voice more effectively than Miss Ross often does, but her song choices don’t always highlight the best part of her voice. For instance, the bluesier Harold Arlen numbers “Blues in the Night” and “When the Sun Comes Out” both showed Rose’s limitations more than her strengths, though the final note of the set-ending “When the Sun Comes Out” was the evening’s most satisfying big, old Broadway belter moment.
Rose seemed to have fun in her cabaret moment, especially on numbers like “Goody Goody” and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (incorporating some clever flavors of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf), and though the show, as Rose promised, wasn’t heavy on emotion, she came close with an introspective “Willow Weep for Me.”
Self-deprecating and diva-ish, Rose can joke about herself and her cabaret fears (“It’s scary – it’s just me, no character”) one minute and yell at the bartenders in the back of the room the next for rattling (very loudly) their ice buckets during her numbers. She’s got a lot of star power and charisma – the next time she brings us a cabaret show, chances are pretty good it will be even better than this one.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Upcoming for Bay Area Cabaret:
March 1, Patti LuPone in conversation with Steven Winn (presented in association with City Arts & Lectures) at the Palace of Fine Arts
March 13, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey at the Venetian Room (5pm show sold out, tickets still available for 7:30pm)
May 1, Bay Area Teen Idol singing contest, a benefit for the San Francisco Arts Education Project at the Venetian Room
May 14, Lillias White’s tribute to Cy Coleman at the Venetian Room
Visit www.bayareacabaret.org or call City Box Office at 415-392-4400.