Review: Billy Porter's Soulful Take on Richard Rodgers

June 8, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman

Billy Porter: The Soul of Richard Rodgers, The Soraya, Northridge, June 2, 2018

In Brief: A fierce, defiant, original entertainer interprets Broadway legend Richard Rodgers with a fresh, soulful slant and a pointed social agenda. Go along with Porter on this singular musical journey and you’ll be rewarded. If you were expecting Michael Feinstein, you might be disappointed, as some in the large audience were

From the moment Billy Porter strides confidently onto the stage, you know you’re in for something special.

Decked out in a sleeveless cream-colored silk charmeuse blouse with a deep cowl neckline, flowing brown silk palazzo pants, black flamenco boots and a broad-brimmed go-to-church-on-Sunday hat with a colorful silk scarf hanging from the back, the Broadway star cut a rebellious figure, and a rather grand one at that.

His appearance wasn’t the only startling thing about an evening dedicated to Richard Rodgers’ standards. Porter opened with Sting’s We’ll Be Together, followed by Jill Scott’s Golden. Where were the warhorse Broadway hits, the pleasant show tunes that the suburban Los Angeles audience had come to hear?

Porter soon delivered a constantly surprising seven-song Rodgers set from his new album in a brief 85-minute program that also included tunes by Marvin Gaye, Justin Bieber, his own 2013 composition Love Is On The Way, and a show-closing medley from Kinky Boots, the musical that established the singer as a Broadway star and Tony winner.

Backed by a four-piece band, he approached the Rodgers’ tunes as a jazz artist might, treating the familiar melodies as a jumping off point for a series of intensely soulful improvisations. In some cases, he barely acknowledged the familiar refrains, electing instead to riff, weave and bob around them. He fashioned songs like My Funny Valentine, I Have Dreamed, and My Romance into impassioned, dramatic mini-set pieces. He also often interpolated his own lyrics into those of Hart and Hammerstein – variations on a theme, if you will.

Jazz and soul weren’t the only weapons in Porter’s artistic arsenal. He performed Lady Is A Tramp in a declamatory hip-hop style, joined by rapper Zaire Park who added his own infectious rhymes to the Lorenz Hart lyrics. Fascinating, stimulating, and a lot of fun, but trying to eclipse the indelible brilliance of Hart’s 1937 originals is like trying to outrun a tidal wave. No matter how strong you are, you can’t do it.

If you didn’t know these songs, you might not even recognize them as Rodgers’ work. That is not to say that these were inferior to the customary cabaret interpretations we normally hear, though some in the audience might disagree. Indeed, it was refreshing to experience an artist and performer at the peak of his creative musical powers shed new light on the tried and true.

That’s a powerful testament both to Porter’s sizeable talents and the enduring nature of Rodgers’ masterful compositions.

Though the concert was brief, Porter took a break to change outfits while a hilarious video spoof of Gonna Wash That Man (Outta My Hair) played on screen. It was a pro-same-sex marriage, anti-Donald Trump screed, just one of many sharp political criticisms the fearless artist offered throughout the evening.

“I’m gay and black. They’re coming for me first,” the bold, ferociously imaginative singer at one point explained.

Move over Michael Feinstein, Billy Porter is in town, and he's fabulous.