On the evening of Oct. 8, the Berrie Center was gifted with a delightful, jazzy performance by esteemed Broadway actress and singer Rhonda LaChanze Sapp, who goes simply by LaChanze Known for her 2006 Tony Award winning role as Celie Harris Johnson in “The Color Purple,” LaChanze keeps busy with her professional and personal career as a performer, and she stopped by Ramapo to give a taste of her one-woman show, “Feeling Good,” which reflects the journey of her life through song.
LaChanze and Her Band gave the small but captivated audience in Sharp Theater an engaging show filled with a diverse setlist she curated herself specifically for this night. The songs she sang were covers of popular hits or songs from Broadway musicals, yet the arrangement made them completely her own. Her Band consisted of a pianist, a drummer and a bassist, all of which are current musicians in Broadway orchestras.
The show opened with a rich rendition of Nina Simone’s classic “Feeling Good.” This is also the opening number in her one woman show. Although it is a bit out of context for the rest of her life’s journey, she expressed how much she loves this song. It is an homage to how at this point in her life — even at 60 years old — she really is just feeling good.
“I’m one of those glass half full kind of people,” she said in between songs, before asking if there were any half-fullers in the audience. Her positivity was infectious and it seamlessly led into the next song, “I Can See Clearly Now” by Jimmy Cliff. She loves this song because it is a good reflection for all days — good, bad, in between.
She sang soulfully and took her time throughout every lyric. The arrangements for most songs were at a much slower pace than the originals, but LaChanze did them justice.
Another stand out was her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” one of the most popular songs of heartbreak. LaChanze shared that even with her positivity, she has faced heartbreak in the past, and this song will always take her back to her first broken heart. This plays in her one woman show right after experiencing the end of that relationship.
Even when singing somber, emotional pieces, LaChanze quickly and skillfully gears the audience back to a place of laughter and lightheartedness. She spoke between each song and engaged the crowd with open ended questions that always caused chuckles or cheering.
Her shift into musical theater definitely came at the right time and she sang a handful of songs from shows she was in and ones she wished she was casted in. Her Broadway career is impressive as she has been active for 31 seasons across various musicals.
One of her recent leads was during 2017-2018 in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” where she portrayed the late disco diva herself.
“As musical theater performers, we get offered jobs and we’re like, ‘oh, yeah, I think I wanna do that,’” she said in an uncertain, sarcastic tone after singing “On The Radio,” her favorite from the show. “And then there are jobs we get and we’re like, ‘ohh yeah, I wanna do that one!’ And Donna Summer, that was the one.”
LaChanze went on to give a sneak preview of the musical “The Secret Life of Bees,” which she only ever got to perform Off-Broadway in 2019. It was set for Broadway but was canceled due to COVID-19. It currently is running in London with the hopes of success, so it can finally make it on Broadway.
She sang the title song as her character August, a beekeeper, who is teaching a young girl “what it means to raise bees.” The entire piece was beautifully composed, sung and executed. It was rhythmic and powerful, yet incredibly gentle. It was truly a highlight of the night, as it gave LaChanze the chance to fully execute her remarkable range in vocals and performance.
The showcase wrapped up with an encore she jokingly told the audience about before quickly exiting the stage and coming back on for one more. She received several standing ovations throughout the night, but the final one was the liveliest. LaChanze expressed her gratitude for Ramapo and those who attended, but it was certainly the audience that should have been thanking her for providing such a wonderful, special night for the Ramapo community.
Photo by Emily Melvin