Review: Jennifer Holliday at Sydney Town Hall

By Sasha Meaney


This weekend the inaugural Sydney Cabaret Festival opened with an explosion of glitter and

personality. Watching their headliner Jennifer Holliday sing is an experience like no other.

Mouths were dropped open in almost disgust at how one woman could be so talented and

so giving of herself on any stage.


For those who do not know her – get acquainted. Jennifer Holliday was THE original

Dreamgirl. She rose to fame in the 1980s as Effie in the original Broadway cast of Dreamgirls

for which she won a Tony award. She laughs it off as being her one and only hit, but from

the performance she gave I beg to differ.


Holliday’s range is inexplicable. She bounced from jazz standards like My Funny Valentine,

to the musical theatre canon of Barbara Streisand. Her voice seems to know no limits as she

moves from a rich timbered contralto up to a piercing soprano, and while her technique is

flawless, she is no slave to tradition. Her skill at phrasing shines in her Aretha Franklin

tributes, and her ability to shape a story hits home in Peter Allen’s You And Me (We Had It

All).


She admits to the audience that she would never cheat us of her signature song “And I Am

Telling You”, but that each time she sings it she must make sure there is something new for

herself and her audience. This lesson sticks with us throughout her show. It feels like we’re

watching Holliday live a thousand lifetimes as she sings. With such overwhelming feeling, it

is remarkable that she does it with such composure. It was dirty, radiant and completely

individual. In unfiltered glory, Holliday was selfless with her vulnerability that was both

trusting and guttural.


Holliday was supported by an incredible band of local musicians, and her musical director

Peter Nash. When you could tear your eyes away from the star, Nash was a pleasure to

watch. His ear to ear grin, clever arrangements and attention to Holliday could not go

unnoticed. Holliday’s respect for the musicians, particularly for her right-hand man was truly

humbling especially in contrast to the larger than life voice.


Incredible vocals aside, Holliday presents herself with extraordinary candor. Her segues

were revealing, and in their honesty - bluntly hilarious. As she introduced her closing song

Etta James’ At Last, all I wanted was for my loved ones to be in that room. Before she even

opened her mouth, I knew I would never hear it performed quite like this again. What we

may be accustomed to hearing as a love ballad became a victory cry for the voice of

Holliday. In that final song her soul and voice wrestled with all the nitty gritty of life.


If Jennifer Holliday is ever in town again, do yourself a favour and book a ticket. You just must

see her live - it won’t be every day that you come nose to nose with a living legend.

Photo Credit: John McRae

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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