About halfway through the show From Lady Day to The Boss I was asking myself why I liked Lisa Viggiano so much. I’ve never met her before and this was my first time seeing one of her shows, yet I felt a kinship with her that made me smile the entire time. Then it dawned on me why I liked her so much.
She reminded me of Nancy LaMott.
LaMott and Viggiano don’t look alike. Ms. Viggiano has dark coloring and Nancy LaMott was fair, that much is true. But both petite ladies have/had powerful voices and infectious personalities, the timbre of their voices is similar, and the absolute bliss on their faces during their singing is unforgettable. There is a great deal of individuality in Ms. Viggiano, to be sure, but there is also something about her that calls to mind Ms. LaMott, a most unique woman and talent in her own right.
To stand out as a person and a talent is something to which we should aspire, and Lisa Viggiano is, clearly, ahead of the curve.
Ms. Viggiano’s new show has a longer title than this writer has actually given you, and it is a mouthful: From Lady Day to The Boss: 50 Years of Talent Discovered by Legendary Columbia Record Producer John Henry Hammond. The powerhouse performer should trust her audience and herself and cut from behind the colon, because all they need to know is that she is singing. If Lisa Viggiano is singing, people should want to come. If they know she is covering music beginning with Billie Holiday and ending with Bruce Springsteen, they should want to come. The general public doesn’t know who John Henry Hammond is, and though they will get some interesting facts and trivia about the record producer who discovered and championed some of the greatest musical talents of all time, the most important part of this evening is Lisa Viggiano. Hammond may be the genius who discovered the talents, but Viggiano is the Maestro bringing them to the audience with masterful skills and delightful style.
Looking like a modern-day Daisy Buchanan with sparkly jewelry in all the right places (and sparkly shoes peeking out from the hem of a chic red pajama pantsuit), the pretty and personable Viggiano shows off her rangy voice with songs by an equally impressive range of artists from Bessie Smith to Aretha Franklin, from Benny Goodman to Bob Dylan, with each number adapting her singing voice to match the mood needed to put the story across. It isn’t every nightclub singer that can just drop into the right vocal quality for “This Could Be The Start of Something Big” and then turn around a couple of songs later for a perfect “If I Had a Hammer.” To be able to present music by Kern/Hammerstein at the start of a show and Leonard Cohen‘s material at the end of the show without sounding out of place or uncomfortable at some point is, indeed, a gift – but it’s not a gift someone gave the singer, it is a gift the singer gives to the audience, one acquired through skillful study and thoughtful practice, all of which Lisa Viggiano has clearly focused on, otherwise she wouldn’t be as good as she is. She can jam, she can folk, she can blues, she can belt – the range she covers, stylistically, is kind of amazing. It would appear that Lisa Viggiano can sing any music she’s asked for. It would not surprise this writer if she opened up with a little opera from time to time.
One of Lisa Viggiano‘s strong points is that she isn’t a singer who just crawled up onto the stage and began hammering out notes with her capable cords. She is an actress whose performance is so natural that she reaches a point where she is no longer singing a song, but delivering dialogue with an extremely musical vocal technique – and she is lucky in that her acting of the story never impedes the story, which we have all seen other singers do at times. I mean, who smiles during the song “Good morning heartache”? Someone who is in the moment, that’s who; and directory Tanya Moberly has given Viggiano permission to use as much of the stage as she pleases, including sitting on a barstool that is off the stage, so she can be on the same level as her guests, making for a cozy tete-a-tete between artist and audience – it’s a very effective move on the part of both women. It is during these little chats with her audience that Ms. Viggiano presents the facts about Mr. Hammond, truly a remarkable man, and it was a pleasure learning about him. What would have made it a joy would have been learning about Lisa.
It is clear that Lisa Viggiano has a healthy respect for John Henry Hammond and what he achieved in his lifetime, which was considerable; but as an audience of people (some of) who didn’t know who he was, there was no frame of reference, no investment. If Ms. Viggiano were doing a tribute show to a certain artist, we would have known some of that person’s work, what they look like, maybe even some things about their life. With Mr. Hammond, unless a person is a music aficionado with a grasp of the history of Columbia records, we might as well have been listening to someone tell us about their Uncle Tony who served in World War 2 and marched with Doctor King – it’s impressive but not personal. Ms. Viggiano could have reached inside of our hearts with her stories, the way she did with her songs, had those stories had a smidgen, a soupcon of personal attachment, one or two personal anecdotes about Lisa Viggiano and her relationship with John Henry Hammond to give the audience a little more Lisa than they were getting… which was already a lot, considering her million-watt smile and her bounty of musical abilities.
But when you’ve had a little Lisa Viggiano on the stage before you, you’re going to greedy and want more — that’s just the kind of entertainer that she is.
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Photos by Stephen Mosher