As it was at the overture and shall be at the exit music, bliss without end. Amen.

Theatre Aficionado at Large

Tag: Kristin Chenoweth

My Favorite Performances, 2015

Kristin Chenoweth, On the Twentieth Century – Very rarely have I seen a marriage of performer and character more perfect than Chenoweth and Lily Garland. Ferociously funny, surprising, and using her multi-octave voice to breathtaking comic effect, she dominated from her entrance as a dowdy rehearsal pianist to her manic, idiosyncratic delivery of “How dare you?” in the last scene, which I found so hilarious, I almost had an asthma attack. A dazzling comic star turn.

Judi Dench, The Winter’s Tale – Shakespeare’s bizarre little play was given a beautiful production as part of Kenneth Branagh’s year-long season at the Garrick. As Paulina, King Leontes’ trusted advisor, Dench swept onto the stage and delivered Shakespeare’s dialogue as if it were as natural as breathing air. Her command and breathtaking control, particularly in scenes where her character is constantly on the verge of getting herself into serious trouble, gave me full-body chills. There’s a certain element of audience affection for a legend involved here, but a performance couldn’t stand on that alone. Dench has prove herself, once again, as one of the foremost Shakespearean interpreters of our time.

Ellen Greene, Little Shop of Horrors –  This summer’s Encores! presentation was more a revival in the religious sense than theatrical, with the faithful coming to worship at the altar of Ellen Greene. It’d been 33 years since Little Shop first opened off-Broadway, but Greene entered in that form-fitting dress, blonde wig and the years faded away. A triumph of humor and pathos, Greene resurrected the non-specific accent, dead-pan wit and heart as big as all out doors. The audience screamed its approval when she entered, and by the time she and her formidable co-star Jake Gyllenhaal finished “Suddenly Seymour,” the entire audience at City Center leapt to its feet for a thunderous standing ovation. During the character’s final scene, I’ve so rarely seen a performer make an audience vacillate between tears and laughter every other line. I rarely consider use the word “definitive,” but Ellen Greene’s Audrey is so perfect and iconic there is just no other term for it.

Matt Henry, Kinky Boots – I hadn’t seen Kinky Boots before its London production (because accents) and I am grateful to have seen Henry’s triumph as Lola (a role which won Billy Porter a Tony). Killian Donnelly slays as Charlie, the proprietor of the boots shop, but the evening belongs to Henry, who is fierce, funny, and moving. Mr. Henry’s flashy, flawless star turn is probably as close as we’ll ever get to Grace Jones in a stage musical.

Ruthie Ann Miles, The King and I – Providing formidable support in the court of Siam as Lady Thiang, some of Miles’ greatest moments were her arresting silences. She observed, listened, and absorbed in all her surroundings as the concerned mother of a Crown Prince, but also as the wisest person in the room. Watching her rejoice when her son accepts Mrs. Anna, or seeing her instant grief during the finale, hers was a performance of astonishing complexity. “Western People Funny,” a number that has proven problematic in recent years became, in her hands, a droll indictment of Western imperialism.

Kelli O’Hara, The King and I – A performance of such grace and strength, I found myself weeping with joy the moment she started to sing “Hello, Young Lovers,” and again many more times (most surprisingly “Getting to Know You”). She offers a first-rate rendering of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein score, and brings a staunch feminist sensibility to Mrs. Anna (some of which is due to Mr. Hammerstein, but Ms. O’Hara’s Anna isn’t taking guff from any man). Funny, heartwarming and often quite tender; it’s a performance I want to relive again and again.

Benjamin Scheuer, The Lion – Scheuer wrote and performed this solo bio-musical, which takes us through the highs and lows of his life (thus far). He touches on a complicated relationship with his father, a battle with cancer, but Scheuer’s memoir is inspiring and moving, never maudlin. He’s more of a singer-songwriter (and virtuosic guitarist) than actor, but his enthusiasm and connection with the audience was authentic, sincere and ultimately profound.

Chita Rivera, The Visit – Ms. Rivera headlined this dark, unrelenting weird musical adaptation of the Duerrenmatt play about a revenge-seeking widow. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the show after the first preview, but it kept me up most of the night thinking about. I ended up seeing the show three times (I liked it!), including the closing where Ms. Rivera, one of the legendary pros, went on with laryngitis. She modified what was a mesmerizing performance in the spur of the moment into something transcendent. I knew by the time she got to the end of the first line of her first song that we were in for something truly special. 85% of her singing was sprechstimme, making the moments she could actually sing all the more impactful. The lack of voice only seemed to enhance her performance; everything was more visceral, more haunting and more devastating. Her eleven o’clock number received a 75-second standing ovation. A master class like none other.

Imelda Staunton, Gypsy – This performance so rocked my solar plexus that I flew over to see the show twice more during its final week. Staunton’s Rose is a harrowing, yet irresistible creation with one foot in classical theatre and the other in musical comedy. I have never been so moved by this most classic of musicals. I didn’t think it was possible at this point to surprise me, but within 60 seconds of her entrance, I had gasped aloud in shock.  Staunton’s arc is so complex and fully-realized that it made her performance at the Savoy so unsettling real and perhaps identifiable. Her “Rose’s Turn” was less a mad scene than a journey of harsh self-discovery, and her immediate breakdown afterwards was a like an exorcism. What also astonished me was how her focus sharpened over the course of the run (I’ve seen other Roses who have gone off the rails by the end of their contracts) and made certain moments smaller, more disciplined, and ultimately more impactful and terrifying. The end result was the greatest performance I’ve ever seen in a musical.

Lydia Wilson, King Charles III – Mike Bartlett ingeniously repurposes the history play as futuristic speculation, taking a look at what might happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies and Prince Charles ascends the throne. Anchored with a Lear-like portrait of Charles by the sensational Tim Pigott-Smith, the play offers the blank verse, asides and even the ghost you might find in Shakespeare. What struck me most was Lydia Wilson’s portrayal of sunny Kate Middleton as a privately Machiavellian wife; a performance of such surprise cunning that she would make Lady Macbeth flee in terror. Her feminist soliloquy explaining her actions is one of the high points of this contemporary masterpiece.

The best ensemble I saw (out of so many great ones this year) was the cast of the Tooting Arts Club production of Sweeney Todd, which I saw during its return West End engagement. With the show was pared down to its barest elements, a cast of 8 and an audience of 69 experienced a most intimate, harrowing production of the Sondheim-Wheeler classic in the most apt location: a meat pie shop. We were seated at long tables on uncomfortable benches; there was even an option to eat pre-show pie and mash. Some audience members were pomaded, while others were lucky enough to have their throats briefly kissed by Sweeney’s razor. This conspiratorial atmosphere was so perfect that the audience didn’t applaud until the end of each act; it would have destroyed the magic. Jeremy Secomb, Siobhan McCarthy, Duncan Smith, Ian Mowat, Kiara Jay, Nadim Naaman, Joseph Taylor, and Zoë Doano were exceptional. (PS: you haven’t lived until Sweeney Todd has wielded a cleaver a foot from your head).

Julie Andrews’ Kennedy Center Honor

The first time I watched the Kennedy Center Honors was in December 2001. I’d heard of the prestigious honor but had never actually tuned into the telecast. When it was announced that Julie Andrews would be an honoree, I decided it was about time I checked out the evening, hosted by Walter Cronkite. It’s an evening of career testimonials with some sort of performance in recognition of the honoree’s achievements, and usually there is at least one representative from the world of theatre. Other honorees that particular year included Van Cliburn, Quincy Jones, Jack Nicholson and Luciano Pavarotti.

Andrews’ tribute was presented by her best friend Carol Burnett who spoke lovingly of the star, her career and even sang a few bars of Sondheim’s “Old Friend” (the camera cut to Andrews mouthing the lyrics with her). The retrospective included clips of Andrews as a child prodigy, singing for the royal family as well as clips from her various Broadway and film musicals including My Fair Lady, Camelot, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music and Victor/Victoria. One correction to Ms. Burnett’s anecdote: Julie Andrews thanked Jack L. Warner at the Golden Globes. She was less cheeky in her Oscar acceptance speech.

The performance portion was tremendous. Patrick Wilson sang “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady, Kristin Chenoweth amped up the coloratura for “A Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins and then Robert Goulet sang “If Ever I Would Leave You” to his former Camelot co-star. Audra McDonald sang a pristine “I Could Have Danced All Night” while Jeremy Irons sang “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” The segment’s finale was provided by Rebecca Luker singing “The Sound of Music,” who was joined by the others as well as a chorus for the obligatory big finish. The clip here is missing the second half of Audra’s song and the first part of “The Sound of Music” but it is still a remarkable musical theatre medley.

At the end of the evening, Renee Fleming delivered a stunning rendition of “Take Care of This House” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in remembrance of the recent 9/11 attacks. My VHS has long since gone missing so I’ve not had the chance to revisit this particular performance since I discovered the lost Bernstein-Lerner score. If anybody might have it, I would love to see it again!

Posted on November 14, 2010 at 8:31 pm.

“Promises, Promises” – The New Broadway Cast Recording

When I received the new Broadway cast recording of Promises, Promises from Sony Masterworks last week, I have to confess I didn’t have high expectations. The reviews for the show were far from raves, and had been led to believe the show was a huge bomb. Much to my surprise, the cast album for this production is quite enjoyable. In fact it is one of the more spirited cast albums I’ve heard in quite some time. Full disclosure – I haven’t seen the revival so I cannot comment on the quality of the production as it plays onstage, but am aware of instances where the cast album can make a production sound better on disc than it played in the theatre.

From start to finish there is much to enjoy. Sean Hayes isn’t as distinctive as either Jerry Orbach or Tony Roberts and while his vibrato is a bit on the reedy side, he is certainly up for the inherent challenge and gives a welcome comic turn. He especially shines in “She Likes Basketball” and the title song. Kristin Chenoweth is somewhat more problematic as Fran. First off – interpolating Bacharach’s pop hits “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House is Not a Home” make absolutely no sense for her character to be singing. Period. Chenoweth is famed for that seemingly endless coloratura range, and her voice doesn’t translate as well to belt/mix like other sopranos. Also, making “A House is Not a Home” an emotional focal center of the production shows genuine mistrust of the material by the creative team, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Tony-winner Katie Finneran gives it her all as drunken Marge and she makes an interesting impression on “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful,” which has a fantastic dance break. Dick Latessa does well in his duet “A Young, Pretty Girl Like You.” On the other hand, “Turkey Lurkey Time” is a complete dud. You’d be better off with the original Broadway cast recording or that glorious youtube clip. Tony Goldwyn has very little to do on record as the cad boss who leads Fran on, singing “Wanting Things” and duetting with Hayes on “It’s Our Little Secret,” which features its verse on record for the first time).

The sound is crisp, there is extra music as well as the show’s finale with the famed last line  and really makes the rideouts of the songs just really hit home (it’s also easier to hear the pit singers here, too). The set is also blessed with ample liner notes, complete with the lyrics but lacking a thorough plot synopsis. Oh, and naturally there are plenty of photographs from the production.

Another thing about the score and show Promises, Promises. It’s based on the 1960 film The Apartment, but composer Burt Bacharach, lyricist Hal David and librettist Neil Simon created a contemporary musical in 1968 and the music is so much of that era that it genuinely strikes me as odd that the show has been pushed back to 1962. The syncopations, the rhythms and orchestrations are all evocative of the late 60s and it ‘s absurd to try and make it otherwise. The nature of the decade was so turbulent that 1962 is a million light years removed from 1968. It makes absolutely no sense to do that, especially if it’s to capitalize on Mad Men (which is referenced in advertising for the show. Mad Men the Musical is about the last thing I would ever care to see).

So it’s not the perfect reading of the show, but it’s still quite an enjoyable listen nonetheless. The real surprise about this particular album is the way it’s recorded. I’ve felt that a lot of recent revival albums have failed to capture the vibrancy of the onstage experience (Patti’s Gypsy and South Pacific come readily to mind) or the energy of earlier counterparts. This album, warts and all, pops from the overture to finish. Almost everything about this recording is alive and quite engaging (with the exceptions noted above); so much so that though I was wary of seeing the actual show, I’m now quite interesting in going. What can I say? The power of the cast album compels me.

Posted on July 7, 2010 at 3:03 am.

"Music in the Air" at Encores!

I was stunned walking out after Music in the Air at the City Center that I had completely forgotten the melody to “I’ve Told Every Little Star.” I spent the entire intermission humming the oft-repeated hit song from this lost Kern & Hammerstein show until the lights went down. We were even treated to yet another encore during the second act. But lo and behold, as I was walking down the steps from the gallery the only song that I could recall was the rapturous “The Song is You.”

The musical, last seen in NY in a 1985 Town Hall concert revival (with John Reardon, Patrice Munsel, Kurt Peterson and Rebecca Luker), was a moderate success for Kern and Hammerstein in 1932, running for 342 performances and spawning two popular song hits (care to venture a guess there…?). A film version starring Gloria Swanson was released in 1934.

To say Music in the Air has a creaky libretto would be a colossal understatement. The story is highly contrived and was initially meant to be more of a send-up of operetta conventions than anything else. Naive country folks, a doctor, his beloved daughter, her love interest and… brace yourself… their walking club (also the choral singing society) go to Munich. The doctor, an amateur musician, has written a song and the townsfolk insist it is so good that he must have it published. Words are by the love interest. They will take it to his school friend turned music publisher. Of course the daughter will sing it and win over the publisher, as well as the lotharious librettist and his lover-muse-prima donna in residence. Both larger than life characters use the two naive kids as pawns in their romantic battles leading to the young girl starring in a new operetta in Munich. Oh, did I mention there was lederhosen? Yes, it’s that kind of show.

Now before you think all “gee willickers, it’s just like 42nd Street,” it’s not. There is an unusual honesty in the second act about the difficulties of show business, with the disagreeable musical director dropping the necessary truth bombs in order for the show to become a hit. He asks if its unfair that the livelihood of seventy or so people be threatened by a rank amateur with dreams of being on the stage. The girl agrees and goes back to Munich, humiliated only in her love life, but eyes opened to cosi fan tutti. Everything about it isn’t quite so appealing. But never fear, there are still two numbers and two romantic couplings to be repaired, all accompanied by the orchestra and the necessary plot machinations.

Okay. It isn’t much. In fact, it’s a bit of a stretch. However, there is much to enjoy in the soaring Kern-Hammerstein score. Romantic, melodic and enough pastoral imagery to get us through until the next revival of The Sound of Music, it’s hard to resist. Interestingly, the team had just written the musical Show Boat which was one of the first attempts at progression in the musical as an art form. You had a show that combined elements, took on darker themes and bucked trends to create a powerful theatre experience, with most of the score serving dramatic functions for plot and character with some of the period crowd-pleasers tossed in for good measure. With Music in the Air (which would be Hammerstein’s last success until Oklahoma!) the team composed an entirely diegetic score, which is unusual for a musical. Most especially unusual for an operetta. Whenever a musical theatre song is diegetic it means that the character is aware that he or she is singing. For instance, Sally Bowles singing “Cabaret” or the “Parlor Songs” in Sweeney Todd. (This is also where the choral society walking to Munich comes to play. Again, it creaks… but alas that is period convention for you).

The show was given the usual Encores! treatment, with emphasis placed on the score and giving the audience a chance to hear fully restored orchestrations by the great Robert Russell Bennett, the premier orchestrator of the early years of the American musical. Sierra Boggess and Ryan Silverman were the young lovers, vanilla extract and all. It took a few minutes for the show to get jump-started. That happened when stars Douglas Sills and Kristin Chenoweth took the stage as the larger than life divas. They get the funniest moments and some of the better musical numbers (for instance the scenelet where they present the first act of the new show and “The Song is You”). Add to this sight gag of Sills towering over the diminutive Chenoweth, decked out as a brunette and dressed to the nines in period gowns. Dick Latessa and Marni Nixon are on hand to lend some minor support in the second half, the latter stopping the show with a wistful recollection of her hit solo (so many shades of Heidi Schiller in Follies I can’t even begin to tell you…)

While the show itself is virtuable unrevivable, I am grateful for the opportunity to see such a lost show. As one who appreciates seeing and hearing musical scores live, I relish in these opportunities – especially if there isn’t a cast album available to give the full experience. But I have to say having limited expectations, I was surprisingly charmed by the experience. Encores! tends to mix things up a bit, throwing out titles that aren’t as lost as their initial mission statement would lead you to believe, but also allowing us to see a show like the troublesome cult flop Juno, or the 1932 revue Face the Music.

Moving from the hills of Germany to the realm of Missitucky, the City Center’s third and final installment for this season will be the satiric Finian’s Rainbow from March 26-29. Now, if they would only listen give me Darling of the Day, Donnybrook!, A Time for Singing and Very Warm for May.

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Photo by Kari Geltemeyer

Walking Among My Yesterdays

2016

2/11 - The King and I

2/12 - Manon Lescaut (Met Opera)

2/14 - Cabin in the Sky (Encores!)

2/16 - Maria Stuarda (Met Opera)

2/19 - She Loves Me (first preview)

2/21 - Translations (Oxford Arts Space)

2/22 - The Secret Garden (MCP Concert)

2/28 - Anna Netrebko in Recital (Met Opera)

2/28 - Kate Baldwin & Friends: Welcome to My Party (Sheen Center)

3/9 - She Loves Me

3/11 - Noises Off

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

4/3 - 1776 (Encores!)

4/4 - The Light in the Piazza (10th Anniversary Reunion Concert)

4/25 - White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

4/28 - Dido and Aeneas (City Center)

5/15 - Do I Hear a Waltz? (City Center Encores!)

5/25 - The Robber Bridegroom

6/3 - The Color Purple

6/8 - Bright Star

6/13 - Lettice and Lovage (Acting Company Benefit)

6/26 - The King and I

7/23 - Shuffle Along

10/24 - Sunday in the Park with George (City Center Encores! Gala)

10/29 - Kelli O'Hara at Carnegie Hall

11/9 - Guillaume Tell (Met Opera)

11/23 - Half a Sixpence (West End)

11/24 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/25 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

11/28 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/29 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

12/12 - Kiss Me, Kate (Roundabout Gala)

12/14 - In Transit

Walking Among My Yesterdays

2015

1/1 - Beautiful

1/8 - Honeymoon in Vegas

1/12 - A Good Thing Going: The Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince Collaboration (92nd Street Y)

1/15 - On the Town

1/25 - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Paper Mill Playhouse, opening night)

1/28 - The Merry Widow (Met Opera)

1/30 - The Elephant Man

2/6 - Lady, Be Good! (Encores!)

2/13 - The Screen (Taksu Theatre Company)

2/19 - You Can't Take It With You

2/27 - The Lion

3/1 - John and Jen

3/3 - Craig Ferguson: Hot & Grumpy Tour

3/8 - The Audience (opening night)

3/12 - The King and I (first preview)

3/17 - Hand to God

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

3/22 - Paint Your Wagon (Encores!)

3/25 - Cabaret

3/26 - The Visit (first preview)

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 1

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 2

4/8 - Gigi (opening night)

4/9 - Rhiannon Giddens at Town Hall

4/21 - Gypsy (West End)

4/22 - Wicked (West End)

4/22 - The Audience (West End)

4/23 - The Hard Problem (National Theatre)

4/24 - Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (West End)

4/25 - Buyer & Cellar (Menier Chocolate Factory)

4/25 - Matilda (West End)

4/27 - Sweeney Todd (Tooting Arts Club)

4/28 - Follies (Royal Albert Hall)

4/28 - Gypsy (West End)

5/10 - Zorba (Encores!)

5/26 - The Visit

6/2 - On the Twentieth Century

6/9 - The King and I

6/14 - The Visit

7/2 - Little Shop of Horrors (Encores!)

9/21 - Hollywood Arms (Merkin Hall Reading)

10/4 - Dames at Sea

10/14 - King Charles III

10/16 - The Pirates of Penzance (Collegiate Chorale)

10/27 - Spring Awakening

11/2 - Kate Baldwin: Sing Pretty and Don't Fall Down (Keen Company Benefit)

11/17 - Songbird

11/25 - Gypsy (West End)

11/28 - Gypsy (West End, closing)

11/30 - The Winter's Tale (West End)

12/1 - Kinky Boots (West End)

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