Saturday night will be a celebration of love songs — including three Grammy-winning titles and one Oscar winner — co-starring Vanessa Williams and Peabo Bryson in Staller Center’s Gala 2016.
Many attendees purchased their tickets only recently. It’s unusual for headliners of a gala — often the most important fundraising event for an arts center — to be announced at such a late date, but the circumstances were tragically unusual. The Dec. 16 web posting by Staller director Alan Inkles read: “Vanessa Williams and Peabo Bryson will headline Gala 2016 on Saturday, March 5 at 8 p.m. We are sorry to report that Natalie Cole, originally scheduled for the Gala, has withdrawn due to health reasons.”
Barely two weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, Cole died of congestive heart failure.
A likely pairing?
Although there are similarities in the careers of Williams, known as much for her acting as singing credits, and Bryson, noted for soft-rock ballads and romantic duets, they’ve only performed together once before — at a Napa Valley casino in June.
“It’s funny that we both had award-winning Disney tunes,” Williams said in a recent phone interview. Williams sang “Colors of the Wind,” from the 1995 Disney animated feature “Pocahontas,” which won a best original song Oscar for Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, as well as a Golden Globe and a Grammy. Bryson won Grammys in consecutive years for his Disney duets — the title tune from “Beauty and the Beast” in 1992, sung with Celine Dion, and “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin” with Regina Belle in 1993.
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The California concert consisted of two separate solo sets. Will they do a duet at Staller? “Vanessa plays well with others and I know her range,” Bryson said, “but I don’t want to impose. I’ll kind of leave that to her.” When interviewed, Williams said she didn’t know yet.
Among the solos they sang in June are “King of Sorrow,” with Bryson accompanying himself on guitar, and for Williams, “Save the Best for Last,” a Billboard No. 1 and Grammy-nominated hit from 1992.
Despite her career success, Williams may still be best known as the first African-American Miss America (1983) and her resignation near the end of her reign for nude pictures published in Penthouse magazine. In her 2012 memoir “You Have No Idea” that Williams wrote with her mother, the opening line of Chapter 1 is “Never pose nude for anyone.”
She soon rebounded with a TV appearance on “The Love Boat” and later as recurring characters on “Ugly Betty,” “Desperate Housewives” and “The Good Wife.” Her Broadway roles include “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” for which she earned a Tony nomination.
In September, Williams made a beauty pageant comeback, serving as judge for Miss America 2016.
At the gala, expect a Sondheim song or two and a standard from her upcoming album. Bryson’s favorite solo hit, “Can You Stop the Rain,” is also a good bet.
Bryson, too, has had his share of controversy. In 2003, he reportedly owed the IRS $1.2 million, leading to an auction of personal possessions, including both Grammy trophies.
Several of his top duet recordings were with Roberta Flack (“Tonight I Celebrate My Love”), but also, ironically, with Cole (“Gimme Some Time”).
Both Williams and Bryson expressed disappointment in the lack of a fitting tribute to Cole in last month’s Grammy Awards show.
“It was a token tribute,” Williams complained.
“What she achieved is amazing,” Bryson says. “Nat King Cole was a giant. Yet she would not be overshadowed by his greatness.”
The Grammy memorial for her was limited to a clip of the “Unforgettable” duet she recorded with her father’s voice and image after his death.
WHAT Gala 2016 with Vanessa Williams and Peabo Bryson
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday, Staller Center, Stony Brook University
INFO $75; 631-632-2787, stallercenter.com