Mayor Marion Barry had a choice seat. So did ex-ball players Wes Unseld and George Starke, though they clearly could have used a little more legroom. They were among the 1,300 or so people at the Warner Theatre Sunday night to hear Jennifer Holliday and Jeffrey Osborne perform in a benefit concert for the Martin Luther King Jr. Mural Project.
Draped in a sequined black gown and occasionally sipping from a matching teacup, Holliday was nothing short of explosive, singing with a soul-wrenching intensity more common to gospel music than pop. By far her best moments came on the ballads, where she seemed to scale one emotional peak after another, beginning with "I Am Love" and "Hard Time for Lovers." And though she probably has yet to walk off a stage without performing "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," her big song from "Dreamgirls," she sang it Sunday night as if her life depended on it, pulling the audience to its feet a couple of times during a rousing finale.
While it's hard to imagine a less desirable assignment than following Holliday on stage, Osborne handled the task with plenty of style and energy. He sang rhapsodic ballads and funky dance tracks with equal assurance, and his baritone voice never sounded richer than when he sang the steamy duet, "The Last Time We Made Love," with Portia Griffin. A crowd-pleasing version of "We Are the World" brought the show to an exuberant close. One of Osborne's backup vocalists skillfully imitated the numerous artists on the recording while Osborne discovered some courageous, if generally wobbly-toned, singers in the audience.
Earlier, the Manhattans set the mood for the evening by dedicating their hit "Shining Star" to King during a polished and entertaining performance.