To quote Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.” That declaration very well could have been the concert title for Queen Latifah’s exceptional, fiery, funny, warm performance tonight with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the charming, witty, vibrant Michelle Merrill. The show was held in the Toledo Museum of Art’s stunning and slightly surreal “peristyle,” a Greek Revival colosseum that puts Vegas and EPCOT to shame.
Merrill opened the evening with exquisite, albeit Latifah-less, symphonic sets from Chicago, Porgy & Bess, and Hairspray as well as selections from Duke Ellington and Leroy Anderson. The brilliant acoustics highlighted the fine detail from the orchestra, and Merrill’s ebullient, joyous conducting was a fizzy delight to observe.
Note: during the show’s second half, when Latifah’s house band (remarkable talents in their own right) joined the orchestra, the acoustics got unfortunately muddy, likely a result of limited rehearsal time and unnecessary amplification. It didn’t hurt the show or its marvelous energy, but it made sitting on the first few rows feel like aural bombardment at times.
As for Latifah, the quintessential multi-hyphenate (actor, musician, raconteur, humanitarian), this Oscar Nominee (Chicago) exceeded the hype, offering a sunny, sharp, inclusive, pitch-perfect delivery and onstage persona. A voice and a personality that lifts the rafters, she glided effortlessly from standards to jazz to blues to Broadway to hip-hop.
Highlights included a disco swirl around Bill Withers’ poignant “Same Love That Made Me Laugh”; a delicate crystalline take on Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man”; a surging and transformational spin on The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin'”; a heartbreakingly anthemic “I Know Where I’ve Been” (which Latifah had immortalized in late producer and friend Craig Zadan’s film of Hairspray); a timely #MeToo revisit to her early feminist hip-hop anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.”; and a pulsing encore of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” marrying the best of actor and vocalist, as Latifah wrung every bit of pathos from the song’s haunting subtext of abandonment and regret.
It was a dynamite evening, simultaneously intimate and epic. Whether Latifah was goofing on the indigestion her hot dog dinner was causing or riffing with her band on a decade-old rap jam from Soulja Boy, she would always snap back to center: an icon of grace and dignity, compassion and independence who champions the marginalized and demands a better day for all. Ladies first, indeed. (Oh, and she grabbed my hand as she left the stage! Swoon!)
P.S. I’m guessing the symphony crowd hasn’t heard lyrics like these in that space before. Time for change, I reckon …
“You say I’m nothing without ya, but I’m nothing with ya.
A man don’t really love you if he hits ya.
This is my notice to the door, I’m not taking it no more.
I’m not your personal whore, that’s not what I’m here for.
And nothing good gonna come to ya til you do right by me.
Brother you wait and see (Who you calling a bitch?).
U.N.I.T.Y., U.N.I.T.Y. that’s a unity (You gotta let him know.)”