There aren’t many bona fide Broadway divas who would “move” me to attend a solo concert — Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Kristen Chenoweth immediately come to mind. Well, add Idina Menzel to the list.
The Broadway star said she was “loopy” because her 10-month old son Walker kept her up the night before her appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Well, I don’t know if you could call her performance loopy in my mind, for she was truly sumpin’ sumpin’ at her PSO debut.
She emerged from the wings almost shyly, as if she hadn’t yet reconciled herself with the overwhelming response of audiences since her appearances as the rival director of Vocal Adrenaline on “Glee.” Up until now, she has had a cult following by those who saw her performances in “Rent” (Maureen) and “Wicked” (a Tony Award as Elphaba) on Broadway. But “Glee” has increased that following exponentially, as evidenced by the sold-out, Broadway-savvy, Idina-loving crowd at Heinz Hall.
She always had the power, the vocal muscle to belt out a tune and grab audiences by the heart. Now, at 39, she has the benefit of perspective and a life well-lived, a larger-than-life personality to match that larger-than-life voice.
The evening was structured much like an extended cabaret, with familiar and not-so-familiar songs broken up by extended patter with the audience. And I have to say, Idina may be the most interesting artist to hit the stage in my memory. There was never a down moment as she moved from observations about high school and performing for her idols, Barbra Stresand and Aretha Franklin. There were plenty of memories, some dark, some filled with self-deprecating humor, told with a Bohemian charm and real connective tissue.
It made for an intimate evening with full orchestra in a hall that seats 2661, although I have to say that, despite her charming monologues, she has to remember that there were a large number of talented musicians behind her, waiting for the next number. The PSO , still in terrific form following its European tour, and here with equally terrific conductor Lawrence Loh, provided sensitive support and actually devised one heckuva warm-up with selections from “Candide,” “Les Miserables” and, of course, “Wicked.”
With all of this power at her fingertips, maybe one more song from Idina and one less story would have been the ticket.
But ah, the songs– let’s get to them. Yes, she did several numbers from “Wicked,” spreading them out to hold interest. “I’m Not That Girl” was front-loaded to whet the interest. “Because I Knew You” came near the end, delivered without amplification and accompaniment, like a love letter to the audience, followed in the best one-two punch tradition by her soaring signature song, “Defying Gravity.”
In the best diva tradition, she gave the audience some intricate twists. It turned out that Idina is a skilled songwriter, offering her own aptly-titled “Gorgeous” back-to-back with Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” where she took time to “poke” fun at the lyrics. She didn’t sing “Over the Moon” from “Rent,” despite a beckoning “Mo-o-on” from an audience member, but instead rendered her “favorite song from the show,” the lovely “No Day But Today.”
Walker got his own jazz-inflected lullaby…lucky boy. And there were some standards, like “Look to the Rainbow” and a nifty melding of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” with Sting’s “Roxanne.” Everything sounded fresh as a daisy in Idina’s hands, especially “Tomorrow,” that anthem that is known to 11-year old Annies everywhere. She allowed for a brief bit of comedy at the beginning of the song, before turning it into her own, at once winsome and strong, lilting and achingly lovely. How can one singer weave in so many emotions and textures without losing the thread? Definitely this was a New Age Barbra, a respect-full Aretha with her own brand of soul.
And we left hoping that on some tomorrow in the near future we could meet again.