Broadway’s St. James Theater might need a Disney-size renovation after singer/force-of-nature Patti LaBelle blows through her two-week stint. The volcanic R&B powerhouse’s one-woman show, “Patti LaBelle on Broadway,” shakes the foundations with vocal muscle and vigorous spirit.
LaBelle, never one for understatement, has not toned down her show for Broadway, nor has her audience muted its response: The singer’s enthusiastic (talk about understatement), camera-wielding fans jam the aisles to get their shots, the singer clearly relishing every second of the devotion. What other Broadway performer would so gleefully share her stage with impromptu visits from a leggy, bald-headed drag queen, a kid from the Boys Choir of Harlem and Vegas comic Rip Taylor?
At 53, LaBelle is in as strong and supple voice as ever, her trademark over-the-top style soaring beyond a muddy sound system, unimpressive lighting and the absence of stage direction that could have lent a more sharply defined pace to her concert. (On opening night, the lengthy intermission came 90 minutes into the show, after which LaBelle returned for a weaker half-hour.)
As unapologetic in favoring rowdy R&B over her bigger-selling pop hits as she is in showing off her ample figure in tight mini-dresses, LaBelle all but dispenses with “Lady Marmalade” and “New Attitude” in quick, shortened versions. Her show includes a healthy selection of numbers from her latest Grammy-nominated R&B release, “Flame,” and showcases the slower, sultrier soul grooves of “If You Asked Me To” and ’60s chestnut “Ain’t No Way.” As LaBelle wails to crescendo after crescendo, holding notes for improbably long minutes, she makes clear that she is not a performer who’s afraid to show off.
LaBelle’s vocal fervor is excessive, and those who like their soul a bit subtler might want to look elsewhere. But there’s no mistaking the control LaBelle wields over her instrument, with every whoop and swoop impeccably achieved. Same goes for her on-the-sleeve emotionalism: Somewhere in LaBelle’s stylistic lineage, along with the soul shouters and blues wailers, is the showbiz razzmatazz of Judy Garland, an influence LaBelle has made clear by borrowing “Over the Rainbow” as her unofficial theme and closing number.
Backed by her longtime seven-piece band, LaBelle plays Broadway through Jan. 25, then heads to Washington, D.C.’s Warner Theater Feb. 4-8. Gotham’s recent warm spell notwithstanding, “Patti LaBelle on Broadway” sizzles with more heat than any New York winter could expect.