The last year or so has been a whirlwind for Marisha Wallace. Thankfully for us all, she’s taken it completely in her stride. Leaving her role on Broadway, having five days’ rehearsal before making her West End debut as Effie White in the acclaimed Dreamgirls, producing and recording her Christmas album Soul Holiday – and of course, relocating to the other side of the world, leaving friends and family behind. For Wallace it’s been less of a year of turbulence and more of an extended period of fast-paced luck, love and a little bit of fate.
She stands in front of her audience effervescent, majestic, regal almost. And yet, she is entirely approachable, likable and at home in her own skin. She is a totem, a total culmination of her experiences, histories, influences and icons, shared and personal, ready to perform as only she can, in the only moment she can truly live in.
Soul Holiday is just that – but it’s also so much more. The evening is an eclectic curation of soul, gospel and radical reinterpretations. Wallace opens the show – and the album – with Do You Hear What I Hear?. The answer is a resounding yes: a clean, confident, sliding voice that reminisces the long line of black women who have mastered the song before her – Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight, Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle.
Wallace contrasts the overflowing exuberance of hits like Joyful, Joyful (made popular in Sister Act 2) with beautiful renditions of Blue Christmas and a necessary, hauntingly simple Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
She peppers proceedings with musical theatre immovables I Am Changing (Dreamgirls) and I’m Here (The Color Purple), perhaps because she wants to, perhaps because she knows we want her to, and perhaps to remind us all that her voice is a powerhouse, uncontainable but perfectly controlled, capable of belting with the best, even though Soul Holiday is stylistically much softer.
Wallace’s whispy tones lull and love us. Her full force astounds us.
The album, whilst hugely enjoyable – and recorded live with a full band, banning autotune – can’t quite capture the full brilliance of Wallace’s voice. Some things have to be experienced live. Wallace recounts wanting to be able to hear the pops and the cracks of her voice on the record, but to the untrained ear, no pops or cracks can be found. Her voice, even in its supposed faults, is beautiful, bursting and brilliant. It is as alive as she is. It exults and exalts in equal measure.
Wallace herself is a delight. She gives engaging, humorous and human commentary to proceedings. By the end of the night, we know her. We each had our own mini meet and greet, it feels. She speaks with us, to us, for us. She communes – with the people, the music, with whatever higher power we and she can feel in the room. She’s rightfully political too, recognising the precarious positions both her native and assumptive home countries stand in. A raucous, Proud Mary inspired White Christmas dreams of a white, black, gay, straight, trans and cis Christmas. Surely this would be the best present of all?
Wallace is supremely supported by her band, who easily keep pace with the talent exuded front and centre. The stage’s simple festive feel and beautiful lighting draw you in. Christmas has definitely arrived at the Charing Cross Theatre, and Wallace is warm, welcoming and has been waiting for this month since July, she tells us. Wallace looks stunning, in two beautiful, sparkling dresses.
Marisha Wallace is one to watch – and one to watch over and over again. She has hints and histories of a multitude of women in her voice, but remains resolutely her own. It is a brilliant, beautiful and boundary-pushing thing to see a non-white, non-male body centre stage, loving and being loved, making statements and making music, taking up as much space as she wants, with all the cool confidence she has. She’s reaching out a hand, not just asking but supporting us to come with her. The experience is nothing short of transcendental, with Wallace herself a true Dreamgirl.