You are currently viewing “Alysha Umphress: 15 Stories” reviewed

“Alysha Umphress: 15 Stories” reviewed

With an extraordinary voice that’s been heard on the stages of Broadway (including On the Town, American Idiot, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert), Off-Broadway (Smokey Joe’s Cafe), and regional theater (Beaches at DC’s Signature Theatre), with symphony orchestras around the world (among them, the Boston Pops, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino at La Scala in Milan), and on TV screens (appearing on the popular series Girls5eva and many more), Alysha Umphress has now made a smashing return to 54 Below with her latest show 15 Stories.

In each number of the unique themed concert – conceived by Jack Viertel (Senior Vice-President and Creative Director Emeritus of Jujamcyn Theaters), with half the songs chosen by him and half by her (per Umphress’s request) – the award-winning performer conveys a full mini-narrative about a specific character’s life and deeds, situation and experiences, while shining a spotlight on both her powerful vocal skills and acting talents, and bringing appropriate emotion and empathy, or laugh-out-loud humor, to the individual stories.

Accompanied by a masterful four-piece band (Yuka Tadano, who appeared with Umphress in Smokey Joe’s Cafe, on bass; Zachary Brown on cello; Kiho Yukata on violin; and music director Bálint Varga, who provided most of the new arrangements, on piano), the versatile Umphress covered a wide range of musical genres, from jazz and blues to pop and country (including hits by Jim Croce, Bobbie Gentry, Randy Newman, John Prine, and Kris Kristofferson), a traditional Celtic folk song, and, of course, show tunes, by such well-known composers and lyricists of musical theater as George and Ira Gershwin, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.

Some of the numbers were funny (“The Mermaid Song”), others dark (“Pirate Jenny”), some heartrending (“Pearl’s a Singer”) and bittersweet (“Sam Stone”), with every sentiment captured to perfection by Umphress, who switched her accents and demeanors, mimed smoking a cigarette, and employed a handkerchief, sailor’s hat, change of jackets, and flower accessory to distinguish the characters, along with meaningful gestures and facial expressions to reflect the moods of silliness or menace, disappointment and disillusionment in their songs, and projections of images on two digital side screens to set the scene.

Her amazing vocal acrobatics featured segments of scatting (“A Little Jazz Bird”) and yodeling (“Pearl’s a Singer”), belting (“Me and Bobby McGee”) and long notes (“Ode to Billie Joe”), smooth jazz stylings (“You Don’t Mess Around with Jim”) and bouncy tempos (“A Trip to the Library”), a clever three-part medley that traced the whole story of “Delta’s Dawn,” and personalized direct-address narration (“Is That All There Is?”), making all of the familiar songs her own and offering a wide variety that had something for everyone.

Between the titular 15 Stories, the highly entertaining and effervescent Umphress shared anecdotes about her life and career, noting that, though she doesn’t come from a musical family, she began singing at a very young age and entered a karaoke contest at the Antioch County Fair, along with her mother (who was in the audience and added who won the prize – no surprise there!), discussing how the present concert came about, and revealing that she was “a bundle of nerves” in premiering it. I’m sure the audience’s response to her stellar performance assuaged those feelings and left her as elated as the cheering house was.