By JESSICA NEU
Multi-hyphenate tour-de-force talent Norm Lewis took the stage at the O’ReillyTheater on May 8th as the final performer in the 2022-23 Cabaret Series. He opened his 90-minute set with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.” I suspect that after last night’s performance, audience members can add “Norm Lewis” to their list of favorite things.
Known for his roles in the theater (Phantom of the Opera, Porgy & Bess, Les Miserables), and many film and television roles, Lewis greeted the crowd by welcoming us “to his living room.” Situated comfortably on stage with only a pianist for accompaniment, he began by sharing his affinity for the word “yinz.” He was delighted that he had purchased a hat with the local term on it. As he began sharing personal stories of his life and successful career, Lewis encouraged audience participation if they felt like sharing a thought or anecdote throughout the show, as if we were in his living room.
The crowd settled in as Lewis reminisced about attending the Hammerstein Awards several years ago as they honored composers Maltby and Shire. From there, he dove into their classic song, “Starting Here, Starting Now,” demonstrating his musicality, range, tone, and overall vocal prowess. From there, he shared his love for variety shows as a child. As the crowd shouted out some of their favorite variety shows, Lewis explained that his two favorites were “Hee Haw” and “Lawrence Welk” (a personal favorite of mine as well). Lewis was drawn to the crooners on these shows, with his favorite and “vocal idol” being Johnny Mathis. Lewis lit up as he recalled time spent with Mathis when they performed together. They rehearsed on his 81st birthday and celebrated afterward, sharing a cake and dancing to different arrangements of Mathis’ classics. After delighting the crowd with Mathis’ “Misty,” an audience member shouted, “that was written by a Pittsburgher!” “That’s right,” Lewis replied, “I did it for you. You’re welcome!” (Music by composer Erroll Louis Garner, who attended Westinghouse High School, he was born in June 15, 1921.)
Continuing a joyous trip down memory lane, Lewis delivered one gorgeous song after another, a hug you did not know you needed until it happened. Belting out a brilliant rendition of “This is the Moment” from Jekyll & Hyde, Lewis admitted that he does not often sing that song but had performed it recently at the request of the President of South Korea during the 2023 White House State Dinner. At the song’s conclusion, an audience member shouted, “You should sing that every time!” I could not agree more.
Lewis starred in the revival of “America’s Opera,” Porgy & Bess in 2012, which staged the production on a Broadway stage instead of an Operatic stage for the first time. To the audience’s delight, he sang pieces from the show in both the original Operatic arrangement and the “broader” revival arrangement, demonstrating his breadth and range as an actor and singer.
Lewis introduced a dear friend, Pittsburgh resident, and former co-star in Side Show, Billy Hartung, and his daughter, Elizabeth Hartung. Together, the father-daughter duo performed an emotional and heartfelt rendition of Brian Stokes Mitchell’s endearing song “New Words.” Lewis returned from the break declaring that he is “into rap music” and sang what he claimed as one of the “original rap songs,” “Trouble” from Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. He asked the audience to sing the chorus, and I was aghast at how many of my peers chimed in on cue and pitch, supporting Lewis through the entire song. A moment I was not expecting but will never forget.
As joyous as the show was, Lewis saved the best for last. Performing two songs from Les Misérables. The stage lights dimmed, and a single spot lit Lewis during “Bring Him Home.” As the song ended, the light slowly faded, leaving Lewis outlined by an angelic glow of soft light.
I could describe his singing in many ways, but only one word truly suffices – perfection. The performance earned a well-deserved standing ovation before we even reached the finale song. Lewis punctuated the evening with “Home” from The Wiz, Barbara Streisand’s “People” (which she granted him permission to perform), and “A Little Night Music” from Phantom of the Opera. Lewis proudly stated how being the first African American to play the Phantom on Broadway was a true highlight of his life. Reveling in the audience participation aspect, a lady yelled out, “you were my first phantom,” to which Lewis quickly replied, “I hope I was gentle.”
Lewis diligently wove a theme of “connection” throughout his show. Especially in a post-pandemic world, he stressed the need for interaction, connection, and being around people. He poignantly concluded the show with Sondheim’s “No One Is Alone.” Lewis is correct; we are not alone. However, if you ever feel as though you are, turn on Norm Lewis, and you’ll find yourself transported to his living room where songs provide solace, stories offer comfort, and your favorite things are near.
Checkout our story on next sesason’s Trust Cabaret Series below: