17th Annual Divas Simply Singing

Wilshire Ebell Theater, October 6, 2007

By Ernest Hardy

When former choir nun Darlene Koldenhoven let loose a piercing high note near the end of her performance, it may have been the only time in history that an opera singer’s rapturous crowd response was led by someone in the audience yelling, “You better work, bitch!” The biggest draw on the ticket was, of course, the promise of seeing all three original Dreamgirls – Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine and Jennifer Holliday – reunited onstage. But even before that fan fantasy was realized, the line-up for this HIV/AIDS benefit concert (proceeds split between the organizations Balm in Gilead and Women Alive Coalition) had made asses leap from seats in one ovation after another.

Sure, there’d been the scream-fest of Ann Nesby, her daughter, Jamaica Bennett, and granddaughter, American Idol’s Paris Bennett, using rafter-rattling volume to mask lyric banality, and Desiree Coleman-Jackson’s showy but hollow vocal theatrics make Mariah seem like a subdued folksinger. But there’d also been Natalie Cole’s silky reading of “Inseparable;” the great Linda Hopkins’ glorious raunch of “Leave Your Black Drawers On;” Deniece Williams (still in a cast from her stage tumble at Silver Lake’s Sunset Junction a short while ago) making folks lose their minds during a no-holds-barred “Silly;” and RuPaul serving Naomi attitude on a ghetto-tech overhaul of “Supermodel.” Ledisi cemented her move from unfuckwitable cult darling to fledging soul icon with her gospel-building “Find Me,” while violinist Karen Brigg’s “Amazing Grace,” which toyed with melody for a Stevie Wonder vibe, was simply stunning. The crowd welcomed Ms. Holliday (voice slightly diminished but still a force to be reckoned with) like a war vet in a military parade, and the Dreamgirls reunion was both vocally tight and emotionally moving (Ralph broke down onstage).

But the evening’s real highlight was the approach to divadom by mistress of ceremonies Ralph and the hilarious Jenifer Lewis. (These two have such great chemistry that someone should really craft an Absolutely Fabulous-style sitcom around them.) While many young singers embrace the term “diva” simply as an excuse to behave badly, Ralph and Lewis wittily kept tongue in cheek, veering wildly over the top vamp/camp/scamp style while winking to the audience, but always anchoring the ‘tude in raw talent.

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