More than two dozen songs and four standing ovations later, Norm Lewis has officially made his San Francisco splash. The Broadway leading man and golden-voiced baritone made his long-overdue Bay Area concert debut Sunday night at the Fairmont’s Venetian Room as part of the Bay Area Cabaret’s 10th anniversary season.
Most recently, the 50-year-old Lewis nabbed a Tony Award nomination opposite Audra McDonald in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, but his impressive resume also includes Javert in the revival of Les Misèrables, King Triton in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the Sondheim revue Sondheim on Sondheim and Side Show. He also has a recurring role as a senator on ABC’s “Scandal” and will be starring opposite Bernadette Peters and Jeremy Jordan in A Bed and a Chair conceived by Sondheim and Wynton Marsalis. So all of that to say: Norm Lewis has chops, and he’s not afraid to use them.
Outside the Broadway world, Lewis is less celebrated than he should be. He’s got a superb solo album, 2008’s This is the Life! (check it out on Amazon here), and he’s as charming as he is handsome (which is saying quite a lot). Why he’s not a massive star remains a bit of a mystery, but if Sunday’s concert is any indication, this is a performer who won’t be anybody’s secret for long.
With the help of music director Darius Frowner on piano and Paul Bonnell on bass, Lewis performed a generous slice of show tunes, standards and pop. Wearing a shiny gray suit, Lewis took the stage with a two-song tribute to Tony Bennett, “The Best Is Yet to Come” (whose lyrics Lewis, um, improvised) and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” followed by another shout out to a Venetian veteran, Peggy Lee, with “Fever.”
From here, Lewis got biographical, talking about growing up in Eatonville, Fla., and spending lots of time in church. His medley of spirituals mixed with pop songs like “ABC” and “Rock with You” could have gone on for another 20 minutes and lost none of its appeal. He paid tribute to Johnny Mathis, one of his favorite crooners, with “Misty” and revealed one of his mother’s guilty pleasures, Tom Jones with “It’s Not Unusual,” which included a ’70s-style saunter through the audience.
Once Lewis dove into the Broadway songbook, the show really took off. We got “Be a Lion” from The Wiz, “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin and his jubilant “Before the Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly! to name a few.
From the shows he’s been in, he offered “You Should Be Loved” from Side Show, “I’d Rather Be Sailing” from A New Brain and two songs from Les Miz, “Stars” and “Bring Him Home” (the first of the four standing ovations). From Porgy and Bess he smiled his way through a warm and wonderful “I Got Plenty of Nothing” before launching into a grab-bag section that included “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Sorry-Grateful,” “Paris Blues,” Oleta Adams’ “I Just Had to Hear Your Voice” and a rousing “Being Alive.”
For his encores, Lewis sang “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” and David Friedman’s “We Can Be Kind.” This is a guy with a killer belt – killer – though he doesn’t always show a deep emotional connection to a song.
Norm Lewis, as polished and accomplished as he may be, is in the middle of a terrific career, but it seems in some ways he’s just beginning. He’s a Broadway star gaining traction outside of New York, and as he sang at the top of the show, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Norm Lewis singing “Before the Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly!