In normal, non-pandemic times, the July 4 extravaganza on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is Philadelphia’s biggest concert of the year. The free show typically draws more than 100,000, dwarfing the Made in America festival, which tops out at half that size.
But these aren’t normal times. Due to COVID-19, this year’s Welcome America show with Jason Derulo and Cynthia Erivo took place not outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but a mile and a half away at the Met Philadelphia on North Broad Street.
Instead of playing before a massive crowd awaiting a fireworks display overhead, R&B-pop star Derulo and actress-singer Erivo sang to an empty century-old concert hall. (The Met looked fabulous and tantalizing during the Saturday night broadcast on NBC10. Highlights will be shown during a Welcome America special on the station at 7:30 p.m. Monday.)
How do you approach a holiday performance in a cavernous venue with no fans to interact with at a tense moment in American history? They had divergent strategies.
Erivo, the British artist who won a Grammy and Tony for The Color Purple on Broadway, performed songs associated with a number of the greatest African American singers of the 20th century, including Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and Mahalia Jackson.
Dressed in a sleeveless sequined gown, she gave a performance that was dignified, dazzling, and socially distanced. Backed by the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia under the direction of trumpeter Terell Stafford and featuring masked pianist Joshua Richman, the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts-trained vocalist opened with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Concluding with “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” she returned after Derulo’s set for a grand finale of “Stand Up,” the hortatory, spirit-lifting anthem from Harriet, the 2019 biopic about abolitionist Harriet Tubman in which she starred.
Erivo’s singing was nuanced and delivered with understated theatricality.
One weird thing: She uttered not one word to the at-home audience; long, silent pauses followed each song. The effect was eerily nonspecific, as if the show could have been taking place anywhere, at any time.
Derulo took the opposite tack. He was accompanied on stage by six dancers who didn’t keep their distance on risqué numbers like “Wiggle” and Swalla.”
The Miami dance-pop love man put on a sweaty, full-on show with production values far above your average homemade virtual quarantine performance. Starting off in a yellow jacket that matched his boots, Derulo was shirtless and perspiring by the time he peaked with “Talk Dirty” and “W2WM.”
An empty room couldn’t stop the crowd-pleaser without a crowd. Before “Savage Love,” his hit collaboration with Samoan teenager Jawsh 685, he said, “I can feel the energy right now! We had a tough beginning of the year, but today we’re gonna celebrate.”