Whitney Houston was not known as “The Voice” for no reason. Her smooth, velvety tone, her immense and well-controlled power, her beautiful, crystal clear head voice and her emotional and dramatic delivery all made her one of the greatest pop and R&B singers – if not the greatest – of all time. She is also one of the most imitated yet inimitable vocalists. Very few amateur, semi-professional and fully fledged professional singers reach her level of vocal prowess, though there have been some close contenders throughout the years since she burst on the music scene in the mid-1980s.
Whitney – Queen of the Night highlights some of Houston’s legendary achievements and biggest hits with a tribute band that have been consistently touring the U.K. for several years (bar the pandemic obviously). And despite the mighty big shoes and lungs to fill, current lead singer Elesha Paul Moses (whose final show with them was in Manchester and has also performed as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It? and Alicia Keys in the recent TV series Starstruck) certainly rose to the challenge. Elesha no doubt has a brilliant voice with a lovely, rich timbre that was actually extremely reminiscent of a later Whitney Houston from the mid to late-1990s and she had clearly studied the icon’s live performances, nuances and mannerisms to a tee.
Queen of the Night’s musical director took some of Whitney’s best loved live performances and brought them to this production in a very brave move. Brave because of how Whitney took her already stellar recordings to the next level with further show-stopping vocals that would make most singers’ jaws drop and ache if they replicated her. And brave because the audience are often perhaps expecting the exact same notes, melodies and phrasings of the original recordings so are therefore a little thrown when they attempt to “sing” along with her.
This was clear on several songs, particularly the bombastic ballads in which the real Whitney usually took longer pauses for dramatic effect, switched up tempo and dynamics, sustained some notes for longer and added in extra runs to embellish them even more. And of course Elesha mirrored those performances with great skill and confidence.
I had previously seen Whitney – Queen of the Night a few years ago, with a different set of people and it was good to see they had changed up the setlist and some of the arrangements, keeping it fresh and fun. However, the concern with watching a tribute act of any musical legend is being torn between not knowing what to expect to still comparing them to the original. You should have every faith that those who step onto the stage to emulate the likes of Whitney do sound and sing as similar as possible as her, but as a mega fan you have to try and put aside your potential critique of them. Because of course they are not trying to be them, but are there to celebrate their life and legacy and join in on the shared love of their music with the audience.
But if you are a mega fan such as myself who has watched and listened to many live recordings and videos of Whitney Houston throughout her career, you cannot help but always feel a tiny little bit underwhelmed despite how great they are. Is there anything wrong with putting your own slight spin on some tracks so you are not essentially carbon copying the original? Elesha, her exuberant and funky backing vocalists and the band all lit a fire on stage and sent it fanning through the audience at Bridgewater Hall, but ultimately I did feel a little sad thinking how I (and many of us I imagine) were never able to see the real Whitney perform live like that in her prime. In this case though, the ambiguous compliment/sarcastic phrase “imitation is the highest form of flattery” is definitely the former.
Highlights of Whitney – Queen of the Night were the vocally demanding I Have Nothing (though this is an example in which the audience’s attempts to sing along were cut short) and the title song Queen of the Night which was a rare time in Whitney’s discography where she experimented with a rockier style. In addition, the crowd-rousing My Love Is Your Love which involved the audience joining in on the chorus (though the “women vs. men” challenge was a bit dated and obviously one-sided) was a winner. And of course Houston’s biggest hit of all, I Will Always Love You where you could see Elesha’s emotions at the audience’s reactions and joy – probably coupled with the reality it was the last time she would perform in the show – was perhaps the true test of any singer’s capabilities.
As I stated above, Elesha has a voice that in songs such as One Moment in Time and those from The Bodyguard era, she strongly resembled Whitney’s slightly darker, richer and warmer timbre. But on earlier single Saving All My Love for You she sounded like a much older Whitney singing her back catalogue. For me, as good as she still did, the serene beauty of Whitney’s lighter and more floatier vocal was a magical element missing. Of course, that can be a problem when you are performing the songs of a singer whose voice changed rather drastically over the years – one person cannot possibly sound so clear and soprano-like on one song then embody the lower and deeper tone of a mezzo the next.
The gospel track Jesus Loves Me was one of the first where the backing singers – Joey James, Vanessa Dumatey and Iva Bedford – took a lead in, and although many people decided they’d rather go out to the bar and continue getting drunk (unsurprising given the arrangement is rooted in the Black gospel church, so the predominantly middle-aged White audience felt no affinity to it), it spoke volumes about the singers on stage and Whitney’s musical influence. If you’re going to proclaim to be a fan of Whitney, you can’t distance yourself from her Blackness just as she refused to.
Slightly strange choices of songs in the setlist included lesser known singles Love Will Save the Day (the song that broke her streak of 7 consecutive Billboard Hot 100 Number Ones) and Step by Step from The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack originally written and recorded by Annie Lennox. Both had some people up and dancing along to, which showed the split in the audience of who really knew her music and those who didn’t. However, this meant bizarrely having to omit massive songs such as the 1990 banger I’m Your Baby Tonight, the beautiful ballad I Believe in You and Me (also from The Preacher’s Wife), the cool Exhale (Shoop Shoop) from Waiting to Exhale, and If I Told You That which was a duet with fellow icon George Michael that Elesha could’ve partnered with Joey James to sing. Sadly she also only performed half of Run to You, and while it was a beautiful piano and vocal-only rendition it missed out on some of Whitney’s best runs and head voice notes that she had displayed in her career.
A nice addition to the setlist was Million Dollar Bill, Houston’s last major hit song, sang by the backing singers. However, it would have also been nice – if poignant – to include I Look to You or I Didn’t Know My Own Strength. The latter wasn’t an official single but along with the former they were clearly two of her favourite songs from her last album for their lyrical content. Also missing was Higher Love, a recording of which was remixed and released to positive reception in 2019. However, if you’re a true Whitney fan I’d urge you to listen to her original, superior cover version of the classic.
All in all, Whitney – Queen of the Night is a fabulous night out to remember and celebrate some of the most defining music of the past 30 years and the queen who made it. Although it shows just what a high gold star standard of singing – especially live – Whitney Houston set for so many people, it also shows the true hold, power, influence and inspiration her talent and music had on such a wide range of people, even with all the adversity she faced. A must-see show for all Whitney fans (and one I’d include in my list of top 10 theatre shows if I re-wrote it) – from those who are only familiar with her biggest songs to those who are well-versed in her entire discography, to people of all ages and from different backgrounds.