Consider this question: Can Santa Barbara get funky? For that matter, can Santa Barbara get jazzy, soulful or bluesy-with-a-gospel-twinge-y?
According to the resplendent Queen Latifah, Santa Barbara can achieve all of those different states of musicality – in the same night, even! Her Majesty managed to inspire those moods and more with her “big band” performance last Thursday night at the Arlington Theatre.
Latifah showcased her talent as a multi-faceted performer to an equally varied audience demographic. Needless to say, when a former female rapper brings her Broadway voice and Count Basie-esque big band to Santa Barbara, you get a smattering of the young, old and everyone in between in attendance. Mostly you get throngs of well-meaning, menopausal ladies and gay couples who surge forth to fan the flames of mid-’90s girl power into the roaring blaze that it once was.
After the first song, a rollicking big band number called “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die,” it was hard to tell whether the unseasonable warmth in the theater came from a lack of air conditioning or from wave after wave of dancing-induced hot flashes.
The heat did not detract from the show one bit. Latifah walked, talked and sang the role of a true show-woman: Her swagger tinged all of her songs and audience patter with a genuine affection and confidence, as well as tongue-in-cheek humor. While reapplying makeup during the show, she shamelessly plugged lipstick by CoverGirl, the company that she endorses. “Sorry, I couldn’t help it!” she laughed, along with the audience.
More than anything, Latifah showed off the range of her singing capabilities, backed by an equally amazing band. She segued easily from fast, Ella Fitzgerald-inspired songs like “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” to the soft and affecting strains of piano jazz on “Georgia Rose” and “Travelin’ Light.” At the crowd’s urging, she even fit in an impromptu, practically a cappella version of her rap hit “U.N.I.T.Y.”
The evening’s highlight came just before the first encore with a song from last summer’s movie “Hairspray” called “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Everyone from the pianist to the backup singers propelled this song with a different kind of emotion than the others, with the Queen stepping into the full power of her voice. A close second for best crowd-pleaser goes to her cover of “California Dreaming,” which she introduced by saying, “We here in California, so it ain’t right if we don’t rock this one.”
If all this description has failed to convince that the show was a special one, it must also be noted that Ms. Latifah’s performance warranted not one, but two encores from the audience. To get that sort of reception from an older Santa Barbara crowd, one must give a truly regal performance. Clearly, Queen Latifah accomplished this with a stately flair all her own.