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Tamara Tunie

(1 Nov 2012: Feinstein's at Loews Regency — New York)

“Hallelujah, it’s today!” The relevance of those three words could not be dismissed when Tamara Tunie opened the second night of her one-week residency at Feinstein’s with “It’s Today”, the show stopper from Jerry Herman’s Mame. She conquered the formidable task of entertaining Gothamites still recovering from a boroughs-wide shutdown in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Tunie not only entertained, she helped restore the sparkle to a city known for its resiliency. Indeed, the difference between yesterday (disaster) and today (partial relief) merited a “hallelujah”.


Originally scheduled for five nights but postponed one evening because of Sandy’s immobilizing aftermath, Tamara Tunie: Yes, I Sing! was a reminder that the woman currently starring opposite Denzel Washington in Flight (2012) has deep roots in musical theater. Joined by pianist/music director Mike Renzi, bassist Gary Haas, and drummer Buddy Williams, Tunie proved that her talents extend well beyond her acting career and various endeavors as a director and Tony Award-winning producer. Whether singing in character or giving listeners a glimpse of her own heart (or even executing an impromptu tap routine in high heels), Tunie exhibited a range of qualities that were enhanced by the venue’s intimacy.


From the moment she walked onstage, Tunie personified the spirit of Cy Coleman’s “The Best Is Yet to Come”—she’s steeped in the thrill of each moment but stirred by the anticipation of what’s next. “Out of the tree of life I just picked me a plumb” she crooned, savoring the consonants like luscious fruit. In fact, it was one of three Coleman tunes that Tunie visited throughout the show. She has a special affection for the legendary composer, having attended Coleman’s very last performance at Feinstein’s wherein he flirted with the singer in full view of her husband, jazz vocalist Gregory Generet. (“My husband didn’t care,” Tunie quipped. “And neither did I!”) Eight years after Coleman’s passing, Tunie was featured in Cy Coleman: Bringing Jazz to Broadway, a tribute concert held in the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center.


Tunie’s selection of “With Every Breath I Take” from City of Angels furnished one of the set’s numerous highlights. Illuminated solely by a spotlight, she conveyed the quiet turmoil crippling the character of Bobbi in the play. “I’ve been going on, knowing my heart will break, with every breath I take”, she sang before segueing to another of Coleman’s masterpieces, “Where Am I Going?” from Sweet Charity. Her interpretation reconciled Charity’s complex emotional swirl of “anger, hope, and doubt”. She navigated towards the song’s denouement—“Where am I going? You tell me”—with virtuosic poise.


When Tunie starred in the Off-Broadway musical Call the Children Home exactly ten years ago, The New York Times praised her performance in the lead role of Mary as “scintillating”. The very same could be said of Tunie’s take on “Slap That Bass”. The notes flowed from the singer’s lips as sumptuously as the milk and honey in Ira Gershwin’s lyrics. Haas’ bass playing fueled the “zoom zoom”‘s and provided an animated foil for Tunie. Similarly, Williams amplified the subtext of Cole Porter’s “At Long Last Love” by using the snare drum skin as a percussive tool while Tunie dropped double entendres like “Is it industrial strength or has it been cut?” with droll delight.


In between her servings of spice and sass, the singer recounted a personal story about Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. While strolling through Paris on a chilly November afternoon, she conjured the song’s haunting refrain in her mind. Popularized in the 1934 film Moulin Rouge, the song has been covered by an eclectic range of acts including Nat “King” Cole, Marianne Faithfull, and Amy Winehouse. Tunie would be well-advised to include “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” in any future studio projects of her own. Coupled with an orange stage light that symbolized the sunrise (or sunset) of another cruel day on the “street of sorrow”, her vocal transported the audience to a place far beyond Feinstein’s.


Under Mike Renzi’s seamless musical direction, Tunie married “The Island” with “Corcovado” for an altogether different kind of journey: “We’re going to Rio”, the singer announced. Written by Ivan Lins with Alan & Marilyn Bergman, “The Island” showcased a more sensual side to Tunie’s interpretive abilities while the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic brought a colorful infusion of bossa nova into the proceedings. The medley also underscored that Tunie’s repertoire isn’t restricted to standards or Broadway evergreens. She’s a song stylist who’s comfortable singing everything from Chuck Mangione’s “Land of Make Believe” to Victor Young and Jack Elliot’s “A Weaver of Dreams”.


The singer’s nuanced approach to song lyrics served “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” exceptionally well. She prefaced the song by discussing her work with Theater of War, an organization that stages readings of Sophocles’ war plays at army and marine bases around the country. The experience of hearing Sophocles’ words has helped soldiers work through issues of abandonment and survivor guilt. “Soldiers would share their stories,” said Tunie, who noted how the human issues Sophocles explored during the fifth century BC are just as pertinent in the 21st century. Honoring her participation with Theater of War, she dedicated “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” to the men and women who are still deployed overseas as well as those adjusting back to civilian life.


Near the end of her set, Tunie saluted her “ultimate favorite composer”, Stephen Sondheim. She had an opportunity to sing for Sondheim in person when auditioning for The Public Theater’s production of Into the Woods. “I sang my heart out”, she recalled, relishing the memory of meeting her hero. At Feinstein’s, she paid tribute to the composer with a riveting version of “I Remember” from Evening Primrose. “I would gladly die for a day of sky”, she sang, offering a unique and personalized portrayal of the character Ella.


Tunie’s encore of “Make Someone Happy” reflected the mutual admiration the singer shared with her audience during Yes, I Sing! “You’ve made me very happy,” she exclaimed from the stage. Though friends like S. Epatha Merkerson (“from the Law & Order mothership”), Obie Award-winning actor Darius de Haas, and legendary Broadway arranger/producer Danny Holgate were among the luminaries applauding the singer, those who’d never before witnessed Tunie in concert were also smitten by her magnetizing charisma. She possessed a presence that was alternately confident and beguiling, feisty and vulnerable. In fact, the title of Tunie’s show manifested a whole new meaning by evening’s end: Yes, I Sing! is not just a response to “Do you sing?” but a firm testament to Tamara Tunie’s exceptional voice.

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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