Tony-nominated Broadway and film star Norm Lewis is no stranger to big stages, yet he makes every setting feel intimate; a recent two-night engagement at The Cabaret at the Columbia Club in Indianapolis was no exception.
Lewis, best known for his historic role as the first black actor to play the title character in “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway, performed selections from his album, “Who Am I?,” an eclectic combination of Broadway standards, jazz, pop and more.
Lewis connects with the audience with ease, striking that delicate balance between not taking himself too seriously while delivering a performance that leaves no doubt about the sincerity with which he approaches his craft.
“You all came to see lil ol’ me?” he teased from the cabaret’s modest stage in the third-floor Crystal Terrace.
Lewis charmed with a single smile but truly dazzled the moment he let loose with that velvety baritone sound.
Lewis, who also starred in the Broadway revival of “Porgy and Bess,” drew the audience into his performance from the first number, hopping off stage to stroll through the crowd as he crooned “Once in a Lifetime” from the 1961 musical “Stop the World — I Wanna Get Off.”
Lewis’ appeal is as much about his relatability as his powerhouse vocals; he shared anecdotes and jokes throughout the show, always mindful of the audience and reading the room with the skill of a seasoned actor who might just as easily have earned his chops in stand-up comedy as music.
He relayed stories of struggling to land those first roles as an unknown actor, then later working with Broadway legends — of Tony winner Audra McDonald, with whom he shared the stage during “Porgy and Bess,” he gushed, “I got to kiss her eight times a week!”
Lewis has mastered interjecting just the right amount of humor into his act. But even in silliness, his voice never falters; he never misses a note when having fun with the material.
With the audience poised to hear those first sizzling notes of “Summertime,” — the sultry jazz standard from “Porgy and Bess” — Lewis let loose with an octave-too-high operatic rendition, leaving a shocked crowd in stitches.
Lewis kept the mood lighthearted but was always genuine. Something else worth noting — the man never stops smiling throughout a set. He emanates joy, so much so the audience can’t help but smile back.
Lewis ended the evening with a touching tribute; the second night of his show was the day a young Broadway actor lost his life after a fall from a fourth-story fire escape.
Kyle Jean-Baptiste, dead at 21, was the first African-American and the youngest actor to play Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables.” As a way-paving actor himself, Lewis perhaps took the news more personally than others — of course, that’s only a guess.
By all accounts, his final number — dedicated to Jean-Baptiste — “No One Is Alone,” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” brought a poignant end to the evening, giving the audience a glimpse at the softer side of Lewis, a man clearly moved by the power of art and those who create it.
The Cabaret at the Columbia Club welcomes artists from both near and far, presenting a rotating lineup of exceptional talent. For a full roster and ticket information, visit thecabaret.org.