Annaleigh Ashford plays a kazoo at 54 Below, not a harmonica.
Annaleigh Ashford plays a kazoo at 54 Below, not a harmonica.
(© David Gordon)

Annaleigh Ashford is a star. We had an inkling of this with her Tony-nominated turn in Kinky Boots, but her stardom is an undeniable fact after last night's 54 Below debut. From the moment Ashford enters the room to the strains of Dreamgirls' "One Night Only," decked out in a white fur coat, sipping a patron's cocktail, you know you're in for a night of incredible cabaret.

With a style part disco-diva and part messy-toddler, Ashford offers an evening of incredible range. She honors the space with a medley of Donna Summer numbers and some less-than-printable anecdotes of Studio 54, delivered while clutching a giant spoon. Telling hilarious stories about childhood in Colorado ("Go Broncos!" she says with a nervous eye roll), she luxuriates in the vamps from Kander & Ebb's "Roxie" and "Cabaret." Ashford sings a duet as a solo in a way that only a true diva could: "Thank you, Cher," she solemnly states before launching into "Love Hurts" by Boudleaux Bryant. This is the stuff of legend.

The singing actress' powerful voice projects across the room with a driving force reminiscent of singer Grace Slick of the rock band Jefferson Airplane. Every lyric comes alive in her rendition of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." You feel like you're back in the summer of 2006, but somehow it's more vivid and ridiculous.

Ashford's impression of Cyndi Lauper leaving her a voicemail ("Hey Annabel, it's Cyn") is a highlight. It perfectly presages her performance of "Good Enough," Lauper's song from the 1985 film The Goonies. Ashford is the avatar of Lauper onstage in Kinky Boots, and her interpretation of the great pop star's other work only reinforces their stylistic kinship.

Lady hasn't skimped on the band, either. She's backed up by a cadre of talented musicians: Drew Simpson on percussion, Steve Gilewski on bass, Michael Aarons on guitar, and Allison Seidner on cello. This gives the whole evening a rich, full sound. Music director Will Van Dyke (also on piano) has organized an array of clever arrangements. In addition, he penned the heartfelt numbers "Halfway Down" and "Another Time," both included in Ashford's set. She recently released the latter song as a digital single.

Ashford leads the audience in a sing-along of Alanis Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket" and honors her childhood drama coach, Miss Kitt, with "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody," a song that anyone who loves Judy Garland's concert at Carnegie Hall would know by heart.

Ashford pulls together several decades of American popular music for one grand cabaret bonanza. She wraps the evening with a tune popularized by Freddie Mercury and Queen, "Don't Stop Me Now." We shan't. One surefire sign of a really extraordinary show: I've never seen the 54 Below waitstaff so barreled over with laughter (and these people see a lot of cabaret). Presently you only have one more opportunity to catch this show: February 15 at 11pm. However, I have a sinking suspicion they'll be inviting her back a lot more after she departs Kinky Boots in March.