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Posted at 12:35 PM ET, 12/13/2010

Crooner Norm Lewis smolders at Kennedy Center

By Nelson Pressley
lewis
Norm Lewis.

Norm Lewis seemed to arrive at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater from around 1962 on Saturday night. The Broadway stalwart dared to confess his early influences as Lawrence Welk and the Rat Pack, then proceeded to croon signature hits from Johnny Mathis, Dean Martin and even Tom Jones.

That's not exactly what was expected from this appealing baritone, who broke through with "Side Show" in 1997 and was King Triton in Broadway's "The Little Mermaid." (He's currently Inspector Javert in the London production of "Les Miserables.")

Then again, there's no telling what these theatrical singers will come up with, given free rein in the Barbara Cook Spotlight cabaret series. Laura Benanti's hilarious, glorious riffs on everyone from Beyonce to Marilyn Monroe to Leon Redbone last spring remains the high water mark for frisky genre hopping, but Lewis's shaking his tush, prowling up the aisles and flirting with the ladies in the crowd during Jones's "It's Not Unusual" briefly came close.

While Benanti owned every style she sampled, though, Lewis sometimes seemed to be wearing borrowed robes during his 75-minute set. Make no mistake: this silky-toned, powerful vocalist has the chops to handle just about anything he pleases. He opened with "Before the Parade Passes By" from "Hello, Dolly!," unfurling his deep, bright sound and swelling confidently through the triumphant finish. Then Lewis, accompanied throughout the show by pianist Darius Frowner, painted the chipper "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" deep blue. The tall, lean singer seductively drew out phrases to a smolderingly slow tempo -- "My Fair Lady," quiet-storm version.

A pair of Stephen Sondheim tunes were equally authoritative,

naturally, since Lewis starred in "Sondheim on Sondheim" in New York last spring. It was the kitsch that didn't quite convince, even though that was clearly where he most wanted to go, finger-snapping like a lounge lizard to "That Old Black Magic" and leading a sing-a-long for "That's Amore."

It made you want to see him in full Michael Buble mode (Lewis would prefer to label it after Sinatra or Davis, no doubt), reveling in the heavy licks of a big band, fronting the Norm Lewis Experience. You get a bit of that on his CD, "This Is the Life," and the hints Saturday night were tantalizing, even as Lewis apologized for his taste as "cheesy."

Not at all: it was almost groovy.

By Nelson Pressley  | December 13, 2010; 12:35 PM ET
 
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