IOWA CITY — With a voice as smooth as hot buttered rum, Leslie Odom Jr. warmed more than 4,000 people from the inside out on a perfect autumn evening on the Hancher Green.
Odom rose to fame with his 2016 Tony-winning portrayal of Aaron Burr in the boundary-breaking musical “Hamilton.” He left the show in July 2016 to see what other doors might open — including an all-star remake of “Murder on the Orient Express,” opening in movie theaters around Thanksgiving.
He can also been seen and heard in a recent Nationwide Insurance commercial.
In concert with his phenomenal five-piece band on Sunday in Iowa City, Odom hip-hopped his way through time, weaving swing, jazz and calypso beats through classic songs and Broadway hits.
If it sounds like deja vu, he appeared inside Hancher Auditorium this past March for a conversation accented with music. He had such a great time that he offered to return with his band for a full concert. Yes, please.
Bonus: free admission for both events. Thank you, Hancher.
The concert was sublime from the opening chorus of “be the change you want to see in the world,” sung by more than 200 students from West, City, Regina and North Liberty high schools, to the final bounce of “The Room Where it Happens,” one of Burr’s signature songs from “Hamilton.”
Everything in between was just as glorious under the artistry of Odom and his superb collaborators: Michael Mitchell on piano, Steven Walker on electric and acoustic guitars, Senfu Stoney on congas, Orlando le Fleming on upright bass and John Davis on drums.
Nothing compares with the way an actor interprets songs, capturing spellbinding emotions and subtle nuances that makes everything old new again. When Odom and his band released their debut album in 2016, they breathed a new and different life into American Songbook standards and replaced a youthful innocence with a very mature, sultry spin on “The Guilty Ones” from Broadway’s “Spring Awakening.”
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He opened the hourlong show with “Wait For It” from “Hamilton,” and closed with the lullably love song “Dear Theodosia” before launching into “The Room Where It Happens.”
As wonderful as it was to hear the music that made him a star, even better is his take on the standards, recording “the kind of music Nat King Cole might sing today,” he said, beginning with “I Know That You Know.” Slowing it down, he caressed the notes upward through smoky washes of blue, purple and teal lights, suspending the highest tone weightlessly among the stars.
With a collective sigh from the baby boomers in the multigenerational crowd, he then romanced a medley of “Mona Lisa,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Unforgettable.”
Two of his most unforgettable interpretations, however, came with a calypso beat swirling through “Autumn Leaves” and later, a quiet a cappella that turned Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” into a prayer.
“It’s not easy walking away from the sure thing,” he said of leaving “Hamilton.” A little more than a year ago, he went from playing to 1,400 “screaming, beautiful people” in sold-out audiences to playing in little clubs with his band, “dreaming of nights like this” — with thousands of people blanketing Hancher’s lawn.
And fireworks. Lots of fireworks shooting high above Hancher, putting the exclamation point on a night of rising stars.
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