Review: ‘Luther Re-Lives’ at the Publick Playhouse

The velvet voice and beautiful love ballads of one of the greatest R &B crooners of all time, Luther Vandross, lives on through the magnetic stage presence of William “Smooth” Wardlaw’s  Luther Re-Lives. As if channeling the body, soul and spirit of the man, Luther Re-Lives, which played Saturday night at the Prince George’s Publick Playhouse for the Performing Arts, captures the greatest hits of Luther Vandross in a rock-steady show that will make you believe you are seeing and hearing the man himself.

“Smooth” is one helluva singer and top-flight entertainer who has found his calling recreating the smooth sound of Luther Vandross. For fans still yearning to see Luther live in concert, ‘Smooth’ will satisfy your deepest desires to hear,  once more, the mellow music of one of the most revered singer-songwriters in the history of contemporary R &B. Luther Re-Lives was one fantastic show.

William ‘Smooth’ Wardlaw in Luther Re-Lives at The Publick Playhouse. Photo by Malcolm L. Barnes.

Luther Vandross has long been my very favorite balladeer since he got super-hot in the 80s and 90s, singing and writing Grammy Award-winning tunes up until his too-early death in 2005 at the age of 54. But to tell you the truth, I was somewhat skeptical about going to see the replication of an artist who is really incomparable in my view. Luther Vandross is one whom I thought was probably impossible to imitate to any satisfying degree of authenticity. “Smooth‘s Luther Vandross, however,  put to rest any fears I might have had about a local singer trying to sing like my beloved Luther. Smooth” nailed it and I was more than satisfied.

Eerily, “Smooth” actually looks a lot like Luther Vandross. Big Luther, that is. Vandross was known for drastic yo-yos with his weight so if you ever spoke about going to a Luther concert, it was customary to say if you saw Big Luther or Little Luther  William “Smooth” Wardlaw is definitely Big Luther at his finest. “Smooth”’s  velvety voice and cool singing style sound so much like him, it is easy to see why he chose Luther Vandross to relive. He was truly born for this, much to my delight. Funny, charming, sly and witty, “Smooth” is an entertaining showman who is not above getting down on his knees to belt out a tune. He riffs and scats with honeyed crescendos that mimic Vandross’ signature style, all the while projecting his own brand of Vandross magic.

William ‘Smooth’ Wardlaw in Luther Re-Lives at The Publick Playhouse. Photo by Malcolm L. Barnes

Backup singers Alicia Andre and Stephanie James are two funky divas who added enough glam wattage to dim Times Square. Adding strong vocals, synched shake-your-booty dance moves and shimmering thigh-high dress changes to eclipse Dame Diana Ross herself, this sexy duo went toe to toe with “Smooth”’s hankering for shiny multicolored smoking  jackets – count ‘em five wardrobe changes!

Under the musical direction of bass player Deginas Boykin, a fine ensemble of six talented musicians completed this perfect storm of a show. “Smooth” and Boykin have been best buds performing together for some 20 years since meeting at a local club and it shows. These guys are great together. And who would have thought that wood winds could instantaneously turn themselves into instruments of sexual desire?

Jimmy Kearns on sax, clarinet and flute was a powerhouse who knows how to work a crowd and had the ladies screaming for more of his blue-eyed soul. Glenn Douglas fully represented with his classical trained mastery of the keyboards, with the dynamic Barry Sullivan on drums, the soulful acoustic guitar of Mark Dooley and Roku Ku wailing on acoustic keyboards and Dukey Stick.

Hit after hit, “Smooth” gave us the best  of Luther Vandross in all their eternal glory like: “Any Love”, “Wait for Love”, ‘The Closer I Get to You”, “If This World Were Mine”, “Love the One You’re With”, “Going in Circles”, “Never Too Much”, “So Amazing”, “Think about You”, “Forever, for Always, for Love”, “Since I Lost My Baby”, “If Only for One Night” – count ‘em 22 songs climaxing with “A House Is Not a Home” that brought  down the house.  And being a homegrown talent from Alexandria, VA, “Smooth” made sure not to forget his local roots with a round of Chuck Brown Go-Go and a bit of Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan thrown in for good measure.

The landmark Publick Playhouse was the perfect setting for Luther Re-Lives’ old-school reminiscing. The 494-seat theater is large enough to feel the energy of the crowd but intimate enough to bask in the great acoustics of a terrific venue. A performing facility of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission of the Prince George’s Department of Parks and Recreation, the Publick Playhouse was renovated in 2007 but retains its wonderfully original art deco styled grandeur.

Luther Re-Lives was one of the best musical productions showcasing local talent that I have seen in a while. It might be well-worth checking out the upcoming lineup of performing artists and community programs at the Publick Playhouse. If they are anything nearly as good as Luther Re-Lives, you won’t be disappointed.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with no intermission.

Luther Re-Lives was performed on February 18, 2017 for one-night-only at the Prince George’s Publick Playhouse for the Performing Arts – 5445 Landover Road in Cheverly, MD. For future events at the Publick Playhouse go to the calendar of events, or call  (301) 277-1710.

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Ramona Harper
Ramona Harper is a retired Foreign Service Officer (career diplomat) of the U.S. Department of State. While in the Foreign Service, her specialization was Public Diplomacy and Cultural Affairs. Her overseas postings were Senegal, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Panama and Germany where she presented American visual and performing artists on behalf of the U.S. Government. Before joining the Foreign Service, Ramona was a counselor and administrator in higher education. Her academic work includes a Master of Science degree in Counselor Education from Florida International University and a Master of Science degree from the National Defense University. Ramona is an avid theatergoer, dance enthusiast and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.

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