By Kate Mullaney Shirley, for ReaWV
Although the “Broadway in Charleston” series brings a handful of national tours to the Clay Center each year, it’s less common for an established Broadway star to make a stop in West Virginia. Tuesday’s “An Evening with Leslie Odom, Jr.” was a rare treat, and Odom was well aware.
During the show, he reminisced about the height of his fame – originating the role of Aaron Burr in the 2015 musical phenomenon Hamilton, for which he won a Tony – and recalled being asked what he wanted to do next.
“I would say, ‘I just really hope that, in about six years…I get to play Charleston,’” Odom said, shifting from earnestness to a wink as the audience laughed. “You’ve been a dream of mine!”
Though Odom likely delivers this joke in all the small and midsize cities he has recently toured, his rapport with this particular audience and passion for this particular performance seemed undeniable. After all, any reliable Broadway star has to perform the same material over and over again, up to eight times a week, and still deliver a fresh and magical experience to each new audience.
In this regard, Odom is a true professional. Every monologue, joke, and vocal embellishment was carefully prepared and executed without feeling rote or stale. His collaboration with an excellent ensemble – Christopher Cadenhead on keys, Gene Coye on drums, Eric England on bass, and Steven Walker on guitar – was equally polished, with impressive instrumental solos featuring prominently in every jazz number.
Odom started smoothly with songs made famous by Nat King Cole, including perennial favorites like “Mona Lisa”, “Unforgettable” and even multilingual verses of the standards “Autumn Leaves” and “L-O-V-E”.
When a syncopated piano line signaled a shift from standards to the Hamilton music that most of the audience came to hear, Odom couldn’t resist another joke. “This is another Nat King Cole song,” he deadpanned before launching into “Wait for It”, Burr’s signature song and one of the best in the musical.
Odom knows how to build the song to its chorus, where he powerfully belts out the essence of Burr’s character: “I am the one thing in life I can control”. That sense of control is the engine of Odom’s performance style and the reason he was perfect for the role of the careful, calculating Burr in the first place.
His incredible vocal control was on display throughout the night as he moved with apparent ease among the warm richness of his lower register, his lilting and intricate falsetto, and his strong, clear upper register at full voice.
But much else about Odom’s performance is controlled, too. His concert arrangements of Hamilton songs that originally featured other singers, like “Dear Theodosia”, were crafted to sound complete as solo tracks. Several songs included carefully timed backing tracks for just a few seconds, allowing Odom to take a seamless breath.
Rather than a robotic control, though, the entire evening felt dynamic and fresh, with perhaps one exception: After a few upbeat tunes that even featured some audience participation, Odom vaguely referenced the tumult of today’s world before launching into Nat King Cole’s “Smile”.
The lyrics felt a bit saccharine after Odom’s preface – smiling does not, in fact, solve the world’s problems! – and the slightly-too-slow tempo resulted in a bass solo that, though technically impressive, felt a bit plodding and exposed against a thinner orchestration.
In a welcome shift, Odom performed “Speak Now”, his Oscar-nominated song from the 2020 film One Night In Miami, in which he was also nominated as an actor for his portrayal of 50s and 60s crooner Sam Cooke. This, and the iconic Cooke songs that followed, like “A Change Is Gonna Come”, felt more resonant for today’s world than the platitudes of “Smile”.
The most magical moment of the night was a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”. Odom sang it not only a cappella, but also without any microphone, showing off both his vocal chops and the Clay Center’s clear acoustics.
Earlier, I had side-eyed those around me who were singing along with the Hamilton tunes — after all, we were there to hear Odom sing, not each other. However, the energy he brought to his big Hamilton finale, “The Room Where It Happens”, was so potent that I couldn’t resist quietly articulating lines like “No one really knows how the game is played / The art of the trade, how the sausage gets made” right alongside the others.
Odom briefly changed the lyrics to reference our post-pandemic world and the joy of live performance, singing “I wanna be in the room where it happens / Not the Zoom where it happens”. When he ended with a dramatic mic stand drop, the whole audience was on their feet.
After returning to the stage and joking that the band had already been halfway to the parking lot, Odom performed two encores: Schubert’s Ave Maria and “Without You” from Rent. The latter is melodically simple – it mostly repeats one interval, a perfect fifth – but Odom’s vocal control and the careful arrangement allowed the song to build in intensity, making it the most nuanced and complex rendition I’ve ever heard. Even in his seemingly spontaneous encores, Odom’s control and planning are what ultimately make artistic magic.