By Nora Fitzpatrick Stephens
“I’m so happy this isn’t happening on Zoom,” joked Leslie Odom Jr. a few songs into his dazzling performance in George Mason University’s Merchant Hall. The show, which was three years in the making, was part of a celebration of the 12th anniversary of GMU’s Hylton Performing Arts Center.
The evening kicked off with “Winter Song” from Odom’s 2016 album, Simply Christmas. The plaintive question “Is love alive” set the mood for an evening filled with original songs, well-loved standards from different eras, and, of course, Aaron Burr’s greatest hits.
Odom took the audience on a journey through Nat King Cole classics. With the opening notes of each tune, sighs of recognition wafted up from the seats. Gliding effortlessly through all the greats — “Mona Lisa,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Unforgettable,” and “When I Fall in Love” — Odom’s voice was reminiscent enough of Cole’s smooth baritone to make it familiar and yet original enough to make it all his own. The crowd loved Odom’s performance of “L-O-V-E,” which he delivered in English, French, Spanish, and Italian (and other languages) with the assistance of a cheat sheet he held while he sang. When he concluded, he crumpled up the paper and with a dash of swagger, tossed it aside to the delight of the crowd.
The room crackled with energy when the audience heard familiar opening notes to “Wait for It,” Burr’s signature song from the award-winning musical Hamilton. Odom told his story of his first experience with The Hamilton Mixtape, the precursor to the musical, which was workshopped and performed at Vassar College. An usher friend gave him the last seat in the house, a folding chair off to the side. When he heard “Wait for It” for the first time, Odom said he thought to himself, “Whoever gets to sing that song eight times a week is very lucky.” Odom asked the crowd who had not listened to the soundtrack or seen the Hamilton movie on Disney+. There was less than what would be considered a smattering of applause. He suggested that those people should tap someone next to them and ask them to help explain the next several minutes of the show, then launched into Hamilton’s showstopper “The Room Where It Happens.”
Odom’s respect and admiration for Sam Cooke were evident as he discussed the honor he had portraying him in the movie One Night in Miami. He scored nominations for Best Supporting Actor as well as one for writing “Speak Now,” which accompanied the closing credits of the film. He shared that the inspiration for the song came from listening to the recordings of not only Cooke but also Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown, and an obligation to speak out and carry on the work of justice and equality. The following medley of some of Cooke’s most famous songs — “Change Gonna Come,” “Bring It On Home to Me,” and “You Send Me” — was the unexpected highlight of the evening for this massive Hamilton stan.
During the performance, Odom said that he thought often of a quote he once saw: “An artist spends their entire life trying to get back to the place where their heart was first opened up.” He told the audience that when he was 13, all he wanted was to be in Rent. He never envisioned all the doors that Hamilton opened for him including roles in television and film. For his encore, Odom delivered a beautifully haunting performance of “Without You” from Jonathan Larson’s 2005 groundbreaking rock opera, paying homage to the moment when his heart first opened up.
Leslie Odom Jr. performed on April 30, 2022, at Hylton Performing Arts Center, Merchant Hall.
The Leslie Odom Jr. performance program is online here.
Straighten Up and Fly Right
When I Fall in Love
Wait For It
Minnie The Moocher
On the Sunny Side of the Street
Change Gonna Come
Bring It on Home
You Send Me
Room Where It Happens