It’s a good thing there’s very little glass on the stage of the St. James Theater. If there were, the place would be littered with shards once Patti LaBelle gets through her two weeks of performing.
LaBelle is a lady with a voice that can smash crystal into bits, and do it with very little effort, as she proves again and again during her two-hour-plus show, "Patti LaBelle on Broadway."
Except for her small band and three backup singers, she has the stage to herself and she takes full advantage of it, roaming up and down, side to side, wearing skintight clothes and stepping out on what seem to be 6-inch heels. At 53, she has replaced the wild, foot-high hairdos of the '70s, probably, since her hair is now neat and short.
LaBelle has been performing for more than three decades now, first with the Blue-Belles (remember "Lady Marmalade"?) and later as a soloist. By this time, her audiences know her so well that they can mouth the words with her on just about anything she chooses to sing.
They are a devoted group many of them brought along flowers and gifts for her and several even ended up on stage to dance.
It has been 14 years since she last played Broadway, more than three years since her last album. She has spent the time putting together her latest CD, "Flame," and writing her autobiography. "I feel like I've dusted off my soul and now I can sing," she tells her audience.
For Broadway, her material ranges from soul and R&B to pure blues and gospel. She moves from category to category with ease. Though she opens her show with a standard, "I Believe," and closes it with a unique version of another classic, "Over the Rainbow," the songs in between are ones she has made into hits "On My Own," "Someone Like You," "All by Myself" and others.
Her breath control is extraordinary. When she latches onto a note, she holds it until it is squeezed dry. At one point, after she carried a note so long that the audience was breathless, even her mike gave out for a few seconds.
We'd raise a glass to her if we weren't so afraid she'd belt out a song.
Patti LaBelle is one of those special performers - like Carol Channing and Ruth Brown - who must be experienced "live" to be fully appreciated, whose real gift is making an audience feel loved. As effective as Grammy-winner LaBelle is on TV or on disc, unless you've seen her in person, you can't fully savor her showmanship.
Her timing, Tuesday at Broadway's St. James Theater, was impeccable: knowing just the right moment to kick off her pumps or throw down the mike stand. Her arms grew filled with flowers offered by adoring fans; when one gave her a bottle of hot sauce, she happily tucked it into her cleavage.
When a 17-year-old Harlem youth seated in my row, Damien Walters, cried out with urgency he wanted five minutes alone with her, she responded, "I'll give you six right after the show," and invited him onstage for an impromptu dance. He sang, "I love you, Patti," and the audience went crazy.
LaBelle, 53, sang "I Believe," "Tears in Heaven," "You Are My Friend," "New Attitude," and enough gospel numbers to turn the St. James into a church. When she went up on the lines in "If Only You Knew" she gamely ad-libbed irrelevant phrases that made the night feel that much more fun for its spontaneity.
Her show was more about audience/performer give-and-take than music per se. In fact, musically the night occasionally grew too rich for my tastes. While I enjoyed the big powerhouse numbers, with suspenseful long-held-notes followed by frenzied, crowd-thrilling eruptions, I would have welcomed more quiet moments in different styles for greater
variety: having just her and a pianist do perhaps an Ellington tune (she was in the original cast of Ellington's "Queenie Pie") or one of her early ballads like "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman."
But those are quibbles. When she turned up the house lights so she could talk with audience members - taking care to include the upper balcony - she made fans for life.
Broadway's St. James Theater might need a Disney-size renovation after singer/force-of-nature Patti LaBelle blows through her two-week stint. The volcanic R&B powerhouse's one-woman show, "Patti LaBelle on Broadway," shakes the foundations with vocal muscle and vigorous spirit.
LaBelle, never one for understatement, has not toned down her show for Broadway, nor has her audience muted its response: The singer's enthusiastic (talk about understatement), camera-wielding fans jam the aisles to get their shots, the singer clearly relishing every second of the devotion. What other Broadway performer would so gleefully share her stage with impromptu visits from a leggy, bald-headed drag queen, a kid from the Boys Choir of Harlem and Vegas comic Rip Taylor?
At 53, LaBelle is in as strong and supple voice as ever, her trademark over-the-top style soaring beyond a muddy sound system, unimpressive lighting and the absence of stage direction that could have lent a more sharply defined pace to her concert. (On opening night, the lengthy intermission came 90 minutes into the show, after which LaBelle returned for a weaker half-hour.)
As unapologetic in favoring rowdy R&B over her bigger-selling pop hits as she is in showing off her ample figure in tight mini-dresses, LaBelle all but dispenses with "Lady Marmalade" and "New Attitude" in quick, shortened versions. Her show includes a healthy selection of numbers from her latest Grammy-nominated R&B release, "Flame," and showcases the slower, sultrier soul grooves of "If You Asked Me To" and '60s chestnut "Ain't No Way." As LaBelle wails to crescendo after crescendo, holding notes for improbably long minutes, she makes clear that she is not a performer who's afraid to show off.
LaBelle's vocal fervor is excessive, and those who like their soul a bit subtler might want to look elsewhere. But there's no mistaking the control LaBelle wields over her instrument, with every whoop and swoop impeccably achieved. Same goes for her on-the-sleeve emotionalism: Somewhere in LaBelle's stylistic lineage, along with the soul shouters and blues wailers, is the showbiz razzmatazz of Judy Garland, an influence LaBelle has made clear by borrowing "Over the Rainbow" as her unofficial theme and closing number.
Backed by her longtime seven-piece band, LaBelle plays Broadway through Jan. 25, then heads to Washington, D.C.'s Warner Theater Feb. 4-8. Gotham's recent warm spell notwithstanding, "Patti LaBelle on Broadway" sizzles with more heat than any New York winter could expect.