Having just returned from a series of custom gown fittings for her upcoming concert,Â Diamonds Are Forever: The Songs of Dame Shirley Bassey, singer/actress Jennifer Leigh Warren is actually flushed with excitement. “Oh my, the gowns are all designed by Ali Rahimi from Mon Atelier and they are simply unbelievable.”
Helmed byÂ Richard Jay-Alexander, who has staged concerts for Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters,Â Diamonds Are Forever, with musical direction by Kenneth Crouch, promises to be a full-blown diva extravaganza. Warren expresses her excitement at the opportunity to do the type of live concert not seen as much these days as in the past.
“I came up with the idea for the show quite a while ago, “ says Warren.Â “I would try a song at Upright Cabaret [produced by Chris Isaacson, now at West Hollywood’s La Boheme Restaurant] just to see how it would go over. I did this several times with different songs I felt fit the concept I had in mind. I always got a favorable response, so I felt I was on the right track and so did Chris.Â I have a big voice and have always favored dramatic interpretations of songs.
“What I want to make very clear is I am not doing an imitation of Shirley Bassey or doing a biographical one-woman show about her.Â She has a remarkable catalog of great songs and I am paying tribute to this music, a gentle nod to her talent and her songs.”
Warren is certainly acknowledging an icon of pop music. Born in Cardiff, England in 1937, Dame Shirley Veronica Bassey became one of Britain’s leading female singers during the 1950s and has endured for well over half a century.Â Â She is best known for recording the theme songs to such James Bond films asÂ Goldfinger (1964),Â Diamonds Are Forever (1971) andÂ Moonraker (1979). In 2000 she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.Â Â That same year she was declared Most Successful British Female SingerÂ by Guinness Book of Records. She currently travels worldwide, appearing as a UNESCO Artist for Peace.
Jay-Alexander, whose local directorial credits include Hollywood Bowl concert renditions ofÂ Les Miz (2008) andÂ Guys and Dolls (2009), expresses his happiness at being on board with this project. He states, “The musicianship, bombast and theatrics of the beloved and iconic Ms. Bassey, to me, seem a perfect match for the talents of Ms. Warren, who is also a force to be reckoned with in her own right. The moment I sat down to lunch in Los Angeles with Chris and Jennifer and heard about what they were thinking of doing and how they envisioned it, I was in.”
“Of course with Richard directing, it is going to be visually stunning,” Warren predicts.Â “And with a full band onstage with Kenneth Crouch serving as music director, the music will stand on its own. As everyone knows, great songs never go out of style, especially when stylishly presented. I don’t want to give away which songs we are doing and how many songs are in the program, but I am sure if you are a Shirley Bassey lover you will hear some of your favorites in there. And for those who are not familiar with her music, they are in for a great music appreciation lesson.”
Warren, who is originally from Dallas, Texas, didn’t begin performing seriously until she attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. She admits she had no idea which way she wanted her life to go other than completing her liberal arts requirements. But a direction presented itself when she was cast in the lead female role in the school’s production ofÂ Purlie.Â “I had sung in church growing up, but during that production I learned so much about the art of performing from the school’s amazing director of theater, Rod Alexander. The spark was lit.”
Warren’s first professional show out of college was the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman Off-Broadway hitÂ Little Shop of Horrors (1982), originating the role of Crystal. In 1985, she moved on to the Broadway premiere ofÂ Big River. “The show’s composer, Roger Miller, wrote the song “˜How Blessed We Are’ specifically for me.Â That was such an honor.”Â Subsequently, Warren performed in the Broadway premiere ofÂ Marie Christine at Lincoln Center (1999).Â In 2004, she portrayed Lalume in the Reprise revival ofÂ Kismet at Freud Playhouse.
At the time of the inerview, life was especially hectic for Warren. She was performing in the musical Having It All [inspired by the 1982 Helen Gurley Brown book of the same name] at night at NoHo Arts Center “while running around during the day getting this show together.Â Having it All has been a great success. I love doing that show [which closed last weekend].Â But I am also working very hard onÂ Diamonds Are Forever, which opens June 16 at the Renberg Theatre in Hollywood.
“This is really a happy time for me. I am in a great show, about to do another one I created.Â I certainly hope it has a future.Â I am just so looking forward to wearing those clothes every night with a great band behind me, singing those wonderful songs made popular by Shirley Bassey. Yes indeed.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Chad Hall
GOWNS: Ali Rahimi for Mon Atelier
HAIR: Judi Lewin
STYLIST: David Youkhannah
Diamonds Are Forever: The Songs of Dame Shirley Bassey, presented by Chris Isaacson and the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center, opens June 16; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm; through June 19. Tickets: $–. Renberg Theatre, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood; 323-860-7300 or uprightcabaret.com.