At some other moment Jenifer Lewis' one-woman "seriocomic" musical—raucous, reverent, and confessional by turns—might feel a little erratic. But today's audiences are familiar with erratic behavior. During the past four-and-a-half months, they, like Lewis, may have cried hysterically, faced fear and anger, held their families closer, gained and lost weight, tried to laugh again, gone back to work. For Lewis laughter and work go hand in hand, so she wrote her current show with Mark Alton Brown as a way of healing that she could share with others. It's a product of delightful talents, from the writing to Mervyn Warren's musical direction to Lewis' frank, graceful performance, and its premiere is extremely well-timed.
Well-timed because, if opening night was any indication, people are ready to laugh, and laugh hard. Lewis opens the show with a hilariously earnest rendition of "Fat as I Am," with dialogue on the evils of comfort food in the wake of disaster. Wearing a bathrobe with "Diva" embroidered on the back, she paints a picture of a depressed actor, ever between Weight Watchers meetings, fielding calls to play Osama Bin Mama in the inevitable Movie of the Week—a musical no less—confessing, "I ain't gonna lie to you, Sept. 11 fucked me up!"
The show has the feeling of being loosely designed, with plenty of opportunities for Lewis to ad-lib and get intimate with the audience. We also get to know the performer through video montages (editor Mike Cidoni), one of them compiling all the mothers Lewis has played as the unofficial "black mother of Hollywood" and accompanied by a musing on aging called "Black Don't Crack" by Lewis and Marc Shaiman. In another comic highlight, Lewis' Broadway career is wildly summed up in "New York Medley," or, as Lewis calls it, "nine years of my life in four minutes and 22 seconds." During the show's more contemplative moments, Lewis shares her initial doubts about creating a show that addressed the post-Sept. 11 world with laughter, as well as the personal mantras that got her through. The importance of family is evoked in "Grama Small," an eloquent tribute written by Lewis for her grandmother. In the same mood follows a moving performance of Coleman Hawkins' "Be Grateful," sung by Lewis and Warren, who provides accompaniment throughout.
This has been a mere sampling of Lewis and Brown's song list and comic insight, and in the hands of a talent like Lewis there will surely be surprises every evening. If that's not sufficient endorsement, consider the diva's threat: "One empty seat and I'll shut this bitch down."
"Jenifer Lewis, Now What?" presented by Lorest Briggs and Gay Iris Parker, in association with the Tiffany Theater, at the Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. Mon. 8 p.m. Jan. 14-Feb. 28. $35. (310) 289-2999.