Broadway-trained actors are the best suited performers to cross over into film and recording careers but not all are able to make the leap. Cynthia Erivo is the rare case of a star who can sing and act with equal ability, embodying the words and phrases that share the spotlight with her. The Grammy, Tony and Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated multi-hyphenate debuted at The Hollywood Bowl on Friday with show-stopping aplomb, harnessing the crowd with emotional pauses, multiple applauses and commanded the attention of the crowd.
For her “Legendary Voices” program, Erivo dared to cover songs by Barbra Streisand as well as Aretha Franklin (whom she portrayed on Genius: Aretha earlier this year) as well as Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Annie Lennox and Mary J. Blige alongside conductor Thomas Wilkins and the LA Philharmonic and musical director Rickey Minor.
Erivo went big kicking off the night of laughter, smiles and tears with the Funny Girl standout “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, a rendition that would impress Streisand herself. All the right inflections and timing made for a special opening song, as Erivo was adorned in a rose garden of white, elegantly draping feet beyond her petite frame. During that first big note Erivo even took a moment to pause and show off her pearly whites before ending the jazzy big band tune.
Cynthia Erivo warmly greeted the crowd and set the tone for the night, “Good evening everyone, I guess we are here at the Hollywood Bowl. I wanted to make sure that I put together a list of songs by women except for this one because I wanted to touch on the year or two we’ve been through – not easy but you’re here which is wonderful. I picked this song because it reminds us how fragile life is, that we see one another and spend time with one another because it has been so long. I don’t think this song has been done by a woman before so I decided to do it”. She continued with a cover of Sting’s flamenco guitar-led ballad “Fragile”, an interpretation that played off beautifully with the LA Phil.
“Sometimes I like to show off a little big and on this particular song – I don’t even know if I can sit down in this dress! (laughter). This is by a particularly favorite artist of mine, Ms. Nina Simone”. The class continued with a haunting “Ne Me Quitte Pas”, where she effortlessly sat down and said “let’s just do it”, singing in French like it was no big deal. On this piece, you could truly appreciate Erivo’s vocal control and intention with dynamics, deeply connected to each song she performs.
It was quite apropos for Cynthia Erivo to next mention the Genius: Aretha series she recently completed and earned her best actress in a limited series Emmy nomination. “I would call her one of my idols, I had the great honor and pleasure of playing her. I adore her music and it would be remiss of me to do this without her music”. Erivo perfected the classic Aretha anthem “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” with equal parts attitude and sweetness, complete with the expected belting moments, the low smoldering ones, the coos, but again mostly that attitude.
The Aretha tribute continued with the spirited “Ain’t No Way” where you could hear the joy and even a smile in Cynthia’s voice earning her an applause mid-song, followed by her lovely version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, another Nina Simone interpretation. Erivo reminded the crowd that during her debut it was also her first week ever at the venue and she felt the weight of the moment, sitting among the floral arrangement in front of her. In perhaps the emotional peak of the night, Erivo performed one of the new tracks “You’re Not Here” off her upcoming album Ch. 1 Vs. 1, which she penned about the father who abandoned her. She opened up with her audience, “This feels like a moment, you know? This song is not just for me, it’s for anyone who feels alone, who feels abandoned, needs a little strength”. She smiled throughout, stood up by the second chorus and paused at the end, crying while singing in its final moments. A thirty-second standing ovation followed.
Cynthia gathered herself with poise announcing the next song as appealing to the diva and theater lover in her and completely crushed “I Who Have Nothing”, relishing in the indulgent, even humorous moments of the over-the-top song in a delightful way. It was another shining moment by Cynthia Erivo and the LA Phil that only an actress with her experience could achieve.
The second act found Cynthia inspired by everything from the 1970s to the 90s as well as two new originals. Her second bold outfit, a flower child-meets-Black Power leather vest with flowering sleeves and dress solidified her taste in high fashion and she confidently harmonized with her four background singers on Mary J. Blige cover “My Life”, proving she can sing anything from Broadway to jazz to R&B. Erivo then showed off her dress as one does – in her bare feet. “I just wanted to feel the ground. Mary J. Blige had already performed here and I had never performed any of her music live and never tried to sing it and it feels very good”.
Current single “The Good” was up next, with Cynthia sharing “Don’t worry, this one will make you smile”. The positive and uplifting song off her September 17 release is a pop-soul anthem with an addicting thump elevated by the LA Phil’s lively horns. The Prince-penned, Sinead O’Connor hit “Nothing Compares 2 U” was next, a welcome surprise coupled with conviction and a powerful vocal where the back-up singers shined again as Cynthia completely owned it. A stellar guitar solo from Errol Cooney was the cherry on top. Erivo goofed in the best way introducing the guitarist and her comedic timing shined in this moment saying, “Listen, it’s real time, it’s live, deal with it. Shit happens”.
Erivo introduced the next song by describing Roberta Flack as an incredible artist who she looks up to and who tells stories beautifully.
A lullaby-like version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” kicked off with Cynthia singing the ballad a cappella with minimal instrumentation layering in with humming strings, piano and guitar. It was a highlight of act two, an almost spiritual, angelic moment.
The next song “Sweet Dreams” was introduced as being somewhat of an experiment, mashing up the Annie Lennox staple with Faith Evans’ “You Gets No Love”. Erivo hit some serious opera notes, ad-libbing throughout her runs and showing off her vocal instrument like it was a saxophone or clarinet.
Erivo shed light on another inspiring new track “Glowing Up” which she penned and smiled throughout while performing. Appropriately, the energy remained high for the finale, an extended version of one of Aretha Franklin’s biggest 80s hits “Freeway Of Love”. Erivo took a moment to dance off center stage to the spirited song to feel the energy of the moment. Cynthia Erivo concluded by jumping up and down at the end and blowing kisses to the musicians after introducing them.
The big takeaway is that Cynthia Erivo is like a rose with infinite layers, she can sing anything, any era with flawless runs and high notes of a bird or something otherworldly. The 90-minute set could easily have gone on for two hours but a performer never wants to give everything away. Hopefully on future tours she will consider her Bad Times At The El Royale covers including “Hold On, I’m Comin'” and “This Old Heart Of Mine” as well as her Oscar-nominated Harriet theme “Stand Up”. Erivo has also described the intensity internalizing her character in The Color Purple for which she won her Tony – while it would have been an incredible night cap, perhaps her unstoppable breakthrough “I’m Here” shall remain mostly as a time capsule on the stage, on Broadway.
by Michael Menachem