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Review: Restart Stages Presents Norm Lewis at Damrosch Park

The Broadway veteran opens a planned summer of live performances at the Lincoln Center.

Norm Lewis, seen here at a 2019 event, headlined the kickoff of Lincoln Center's Restart Stages program at Damrosch Park.
(© David Gordon)

Live performance is returning. You can feel the electricity in the air as the arts scene sparks back to life at every level, from the subway busker performing for an audience of one to our city's largest stages. And there are presently none larger than the one at Damrosch Park, where Norm Lewis has just kicked off Lincoln Center's Restart Stages program with a concert to remind us why we love Broadway.

The free but ticketed event on May 10 was held under a litany of Covid-mitigating measures: Seats were placed in "pods" of two with over 6 feet of distance between each pod. The event was outdoors. Masks were worn the whole time. And you had to take the long way around the audience to use the bathroom behind the stage. This last bit made the least sense to me, but it was nice to run into some familiar (masked) faces on my promenade to the loo.

Even the excellent three-man band (Perry Cavari on drums, George Farmer on bass, and pianist and music director Joseph Joubert) was spaced out on the expansive stage. For such a big venue, you need a big voice and personality to match — and Lewis delivers on both counts.

He opened with "Waiting for Life to Begin" from his last Broadway show, Once on This Island. The sentiment behind the song is one we've all felt acutely over this last year. He chased that with a moving rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "No One Is Alone," which he has performed online for Lincoln Center's Memorial for All of Us.

With the audience feeling both misty and optimistic, Lewis and director Richard Jay-Alexander had us right where they wanted us for this 60-minute jaunt through the actor's song binder. What's so fun about watching Lewis is his eclectic taste: From the mellow sweetness of Johnny Mathis to the powerful soul of Marvin Gaye to the euro-schmaltz of Andrew Lloyd Weber, Lewis delivers it all in his distinctively rich baritone and luxuriant vibrato. He showed off his lovely falsetto on several numbers, most memorably "Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables. He performed Gershwin's "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" from ‘'Porgy and Bess'' in both high operatic style (in honor of the adjacent Met) and as arranged for his 2012 Tony-nominated turn on Broadway. He even led the whole audience in a sing-along of "Ya Got Trouble" from The Music Man, not flubbing a single lyric of the famously difficult patter song.

Audience members sit in socially distanced "pods" at Damrosch Park.
(© Zachary Stewart)

All of this made me extraordinarily grateful to be sitting in an audience for a concert again, but it seems as though the year away (and the spaced outdoor setup) have led some New Yorkers to forget theater etiquette basics, so just a reminder if you plan on attending any of the forthcoming shows at Restart Stages: Don't even think about trying to record a bit for your Instagram, because an usher will run up and risk violating social distance to tell you to put your phone away. COVID may have consumed our attention this past year, but ASCAP never went away.

It's a shame there are no bootleg videos of Lewis's performance of the Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell song "Fever," delivered with character voices and a devilish chuckle that makes you wonder, Too soon? I chuckled along with Lewis, perfectly secure in the knowledge that I was a sensible 87.6 degrees (as evidenced by the wrist thermometer at the entrance). But I couldn't tell if any of my fellow audience members laughed too as they were so far away. Covid is contagious, but so is laughter, making it that much more difficult to pull off comedy while socially distanced. Still, I appreciated Lewis's valiant effort, and I definitely left with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. I trust that by the time we're all ready to squeeze back into Feinstein's/54 Below, and we've had a few before the show, the bit will be even funnier.

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