Review: Lea DeLaria Performs Jazz at New Jersey Performing Arts Center

By Jonathan Spira on 12 April 2016
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Among the many things that I didn’t know, was that the New Jersey Performing Arts Center has a space that serves as a jazz club among other things. I didn’t know how impressive the building looked like in the daylight as I had only seen it after dark, and I didn’t know that Lea DeLaria, a star of “Orange is the New Black,” was an accomplished jazz musician.

Despite the early start of the show at 6 p.m. (there was also a later performance), the Chase Room at the center exuded a late night jazz-club atmosphere. The room lights dimmed and Lea came on stage, looking nothing like her character on “Orange,” Carrie Big Boo Black.

Accompanied by a talented trio – Chris Ziemba on the piano, Dylan Shamat on bass, and Aaron Kimmel on drums – DeLaria was in town Saturday evening and addressed the question: is it possible to turn David Bowie and Stephen Sondheim into jazz. She also brought her views on the current U.S. election (she’s not voting for Trump, let’s just leave it at that).

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The result was mesmerizing, her admiration for David Bowie quite clear as well and her rendition of the haunting song “Major Tom” is memorable. She makes Bowie her own with her jazz arrangements and powerful singing voice.

It turns out that DeLaria’s favorite Bowie song, “Life on Mars,” is mine as well and DeLaria delivers the best cover of the song I have heard to date (and, given Bowie’s recent passing, which drew more attention to his work, I’ve heard quite a few). She slows it down and brings out a brilliance in the song that wasn’t previously apparent to me. The result is awe-inspiring and the underlying power of the piece, once described as “a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dalí painting,” is further emphasized by the jazz undertones.

She closed with Stephen Sondheim’s The Ballad of Sweeney Todd, bringing to light aspects of the piece I never really heard before.

What was missing? I would have loved to hear her take on Bowie’s “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance” and was happy to find out she has an album out (“House of David,” her sixth) that includes these songs (she sat happily in the anteroom after the performance, chatting with fans, taking selfies, and selling her CDs).

Although DeLaria hasn’t announced any upcoming performances yet, given the opportunity I’d highly recommend planning to attend.


New Jersey Performing Arts Center
1 Center Street
Newark, N.J. 07102

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

Accura News

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