Throughout my many years of reviewing, I have tried to stay away from using tired old cliches such as “tour de force” to describe performances. However, when it comes to vocalist Heather Hedley’s concert with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which I had the good fortune to witness on Friday, there are simply no other options. She was simply astonishing.
Priding myself on my knowledge of the entertainment universe and its stars, I am loathe to admit that I was not all that familiar with singer-songwriter-record producer and actor Headley’s career but in reading her bio prior to attending the concert, my anticipation at seeing her perform was piqued. For one, I learned that Headley, a native of Trinidad, grew up in my hometown of Fort Wayne and graduated from Northrup High School, where several of my nephews attended. Further research revealed that Headley, a Northwestern University graduate, starred on Broadway in Sir Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s “The Lion King” as well as their musical “Aida,” that earned her a 2000 Tony Award. Among her other sterling accomplishments are a 2010 Grammy Award as a recording artist for a Best Contemporary R & B Gospel Album, a return to Broadway in “The Color Purple,” and most recently a reoccurring role in “Sweet Magnolias” on Netflix.
Playing to a wildly enthusiastic crowd consisting of some 800 obvious fans, Headley showed off her potent vocal and dramatic abilities as she switched from brassy to elegant to sensual with ease. Truly a one-of-a-kind performer, she also displayed a stage presence and connection with the audience that I will long remember for its distinctiveness. Adding to the entertainment value of her concert was her warm, playful, and often heartfelt banter with the audience that included anecdotes and stories about her career and personal life.
Proving her ability to switch genres on a whim, accompanied by the world class ISO conducted by the always effervescent Jack Everly, Headley sang everything from Broadway to R & B to Gospel to Rock and she even threw in a little a cappella opera to test the acoustics of the venerable Hilbert. Also performing with Headley and the ISO was her music director Ron Calvard. Appearing as Headley’s guest was a remarkably talented tenor Curtis Bannister, a Chicago based, multi-genre singer-actor. Finally, the ISO chorus added to the vocal luster of the proceedings.
The highlights of Headley’s electrifying concert included her opening number “Over the Rainbow” which she magnificently made her own. There was so much to enjoy about this concert but suffice to say, I did come away with favorites such as a medley of Sondheim’s “No One is Alone” which Headly performed in a stunning duet with cellist Austin Huntington and” Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods,” a production of which Headley appeared at City Center in NYC. I also luxuriated in Headley’s rendition of “She Used to Be Mine, from Sara Bareilles’s “Waitress,” her emotional, tearful rendering of Jason Robert Brown’s “Still Hurting,” Act one closed with a reflective medley of Sir Elton John & LeAnn Rimes’s “Written in the Stars,” “Lost in the Stars,’ with lyrics by Maxell Anderson and “Hold On” by Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman.
Act 2 began with Headly, backed by the ISO chorus singing “River Deep, Mountain High” and Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Your Song.” For me, the concert’s showstopper occurred when Headley introduced Bannister, after which the ideally matched pair offered a breathtaking duet of David Foster’s and Carole Bayer Sager’s “The Prayer,” with solos by concertmaster Kevin Lin on violin, and Huntington on cello. At a time when standing ovations have evolved into ordinary and pedestrian gestures, the thunderous response this audience extended Headley and Bannister immediately following their bravura performance, was spontaneous and genuine.
Thanking the audience for their hospitality and generosity of spirit and the ISO for their artistry, Headly closed with “For Good” from “Wicked.” Returning for an encore, she brought the predominantly Boomer audience members to their feet as they danced in place to the rousing “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” from the “The Bodyguard Musical,” the West End production in which she starred.