DIVA TALK: Greene, Brier, Days, Pedi and Schaffel Delight in Diva Christmas and a Sensational Secret Garden

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Greene, Brier, Days, Pedi and Schaffel Delight in Diva Christmas and a Sensational Secret Garden News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
From Left: Pedi, Schaffel, Brier, Greene and Days in A Broadway Diva Christmas.
From Left: Pedi, Schaffel, Brier, Greene and Days in A Broadway Diva Christmas. Photo by Ken Howard

A BROADWAY DIVA CHRISTMAS

There's an explosion of talent currently lighting up Off-Broadway's Julia Miles Theatre on West 55th Street. Of course, one would expect no less from a cast that boasts Ellen Greene, Kathy Brier, Maya Days, Christine Pedi and Marla Schaffel and a supporting company that features Kate Pazakis, Tedi Marsh and N'Kenge Simpson-Hoffman.

All eight women are uniquely talented, and when those talents combine in A Broadway Diva Christmas, the result is a thrilling evening of song and comedy. The limited engagement, which runs through Dec. 31 at the intimate venue, is produced by Tom D'Angora and Michael Duling and directed by the latter, and kudos to these young men for putting together such a wonderful holiday tribute that mixes familiar classics with lesser-known holiday fare.

The intermissionless program began with the high-ranging belts of The Jingle Babes (Pazakis, Marsh and Simpson-Hoffman), who delighted throughout the evening with fierce deliveries of "Silver Bells" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." In between each of the five stars had the chance to strut her stuff.

Maya Days, who was recently seen Off-Broadway in Once Around the Sun, brought out the "diva" in A Broadway Diva Christmas. Dressed in one ravishing outfit after another, Days lent her limitless belt to "Do You Hear What I Hear?," "Someday at Christmas" and an especially exciting version of "O Holy Night." Though I'd seen her Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, I hadn't realized what a stellar vocalist Kathy Brier can be. Her version of Joni Mitchell's "River" was especially riveting — beautifully sung and powerfully performed. She also scored with the more rock-flavored "All I Want for Christmas Is You" and "Please Come Home for Christmas."

Marla Schaffel, best known to Broadway audiences for her Tony-nominated turn in Jane Eyre, drew laughs with Matt Stone and Trey Parker's "Lonely Jew on Christmas," and she also did well with "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and a belty, bluesy "Man With the Bag."

The comedic high points of the evening were provided by Christine Pedi, who dazzled with a Fosse-inspired "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town." Without giving too much away, the clever number blended "Santa Claus" with a holiday themed version of Kander and Ebb's "Roxie." She also delivered a hilarious audience-interactive rendition of "The 12 Days of Christmas," performing each of the 12 days in a different voice. Those who were Pedi-fied included Katharine Hepburn, Fran Dresher, Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury, Ethel Merman, Liza Minnelli, Joan Rivers, Bette Davis, Patti LuPone, among others. Pedi also was a delight in her non-comic offering, singing a simple, touching arrangement of "Count Your Blessings" and "Christmas Lullaby."

And, then, there's Ellen Greene, the Little Shop of Horrors star who served as the evening's narrator, comically explaining how this grand assemblage of divas came to be. Greene can do no wrong onstage, whether she's gently caressing Mel Torme and Robert Wells' "The Christmas Song," delivering an emotionally haunting version of "Silent Night" (in German), slinking her way through a sexy, hysterical send-up of "Santa Baby" or bringing her many charms to Blane and Martin's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Greene casts a spell over the audience whether she's singing or talking, and the show is all the more richer for her warm, touching and wholly unique presence.

It should also be noted that musical director Brian J. Nash, who is featured on piano, leads a terrific ensemble that includes Ben Trigg on cello, Ben Zwerin on bass and Christian Linsey on percussion.

[A Broadway Diva Christmas plays the Julia Miles Theatre, located in Manhattan at 424 West 55th Street. Tickets, priced at $70, are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com. For more information go to www.abroadwaydivachristmas.com.]

THE SECRET GARDEN

There are a few magical moments each theatre season, those evenings when the cast and the audience seem to be in perfect unison. The emotion that wafts from the stage throughout the theatre is sent flying back to the cast through thunderous ovations and cheers. Monday evening was such a night when the Third Annual World AIDS Day Benefit Concert of The Secret Garden was presented at The Manhattan Center's Grand Ballroom. A benefit for the Joey DiPaolo AIDS Foundation, which funds a camp for kids and young adults who are HIV positive, the evening began with remarks from DiPaolo and his loving mother before the curtain rose to reveal a stage filled with a 35-piece orchestra — conducted by Michael Kosarin — and a 70 person choir.

Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's The Secret Garden was one of the first shows I attended when I began working for Playbill in 1991, and if the original Broadway cast was stellar — featuring Tony winner Daisy Egan as Mary Lennox, Alison Fraser as Martha, Rebecca Luker as Lily, John Cameron Mitchell as Dickon, Mandy Patinkin as Archibald and Robert Westenberg as Neville — the company assembled for the benefit concert, astonishingly, seemed even more suited to the roles, as if they were born to play these parts. Most impressive of the evening was Steven Pasquale, who could easily stake his claim as one of the leading men of the American musical theatre after his emotionally intense and gloriously sung performance as the tortured Archibald Craven. From the moment Pasquale opened his mouth to sing "I Heard Someone Crying" through his final, passionate duet with Laura Benanti's Lily on "How Could I Ever Know," Pasquale had the audience completely enraptured. And, there may have been no more thrilling moment than his duet with Will Chase's Neville Craven on "Lily's Eyes." A roar of applause erupted after the gorgeous tune, one of the many highlights of this thoroughly moving evening that was simply and effectively staged by Stafford Arima.

Pasquale, however, wasn't the only one who shone; in fact, nearly every cast member dazzled the sold-out crowd. Celia Keenan-Bolger, who has been playing the 12-year-old Olive Ostrovsky for the past year in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, proved that she is equally wonderful — if not moreso — playing an adult, the free-spirited maid Martha. Keenan Bolger scored with everything she touched and brought the house down with her belty second-act show-stopper "Hold On," which concluded in an exciting burst of sound. Michael Arden's boyish face and stunning vocals were a perfect fit for Dickon, Martha's brother who opens a new world for the young Mary Lennox. His renditions of "Winter's on the Wings" and "Wick" were simply wonderful. Will Chase, who has charmed in Miss Saigon, The Full Monty and Lennon, made a surprisingly evil Neville, and Laura Benanti's soaring soprano aimed for and hit the heart with ease. There are few sopranos around that can match her pure rounded tone. Benanti is also a wonderful actress — she created a beautiful moment with co-star Jaclyn Neidenthal (Mary Lennox) at the end of the first act, her face literally glowing when she opened an imaginary door to the titular secret garden.

Sara Gettelfinger and Max von Essen managed to shine in the minor roles of Mary's deceased parents with von Essen's lush tenor especially impressive. And, Barbara Rosenblatt, who starred as the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock in the original Broadway company, repeated her role here with the same fervor.

And, the two children of the production —the aforementioned Jaclyn Neidenthal as Mary Lennox and Struan Erlenborn as Colin Craven — offered performances to rival their adult co-stars. Both drew laugh after laugh with their spitfire takes on their respective characters, and each sang extremely well. It was also amusing to watch Neidenthal, who tackled a mammoth role with grace, as the audience showered her with the loudest ovation of the evening during the final curtain call. She seemed somewhat overwhelmed by the sound that was directed to her, running to co-star Laura Benanti, who lovingly pushed her back to centerstage. The World AIDS Day benefit concerts have previously included two Stephen Schwartz musicals, Children of Eden and Pippin. The productions have grown stronger each year, but this year's concert — produced by Jamie McGonnigal, Brad Bauner, Adam Caldwell, Josh Fiedler, Ryan Hill, Erica Lynn Schwartz and The Storm Theatre — reached an entirely new level. Congratulations to all involved — one can only hope some smart producer will record these beautiful performances.

[For more information about the Joey DiPaolo AIDS Foundation, visit www.jdaf.org.]

DIVA TIDBITS

Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone, currently starring as Mrs. Lovett in the acclaimed revival of Sweeney Todd, will head into the recording studio Dec. 11-13. La LuPone will record her latest solo disc, which will be released on the Ghostlight Records label in April 2006. Entitled The Lady With the Torch, the new recording is based on LuPone's terrific cabaret/concert act of the same name, which was conceived and directed by Scott Wittman and features orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and musical direction by Chris Fenwick. Fenwick will direct a ten-piece band for the upcoming studio recording. The complete track list for the forthcoming CD includes "Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry," "Something Cool," "A Cottage for Sale," "Ill Wind," "I Wanna Be Around," "The Other Woman," "The Man I Love," "Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please," "Me and My Shadow," "Do It Again," "I’m Through with Love," "So in Love," "I Love Paris," "C’est Magnifique!" and "Body and Soul."

Next week two-time Tony nominee Rebecca Luker makes her solo cabaret debut at Feinstein's at the Regency, performing a set of tunes by women songwriters, both past and present. Luker, who will play the posh club Dec. 12-15 at 8:30 PM, will be backed by musical director Joseph Thalken on piano with Dick Sarpola on bass. Mark Waldrop is the director of the singing actress' new show, and cabaretgoers can expect to hear such tunes as "Lucky to Be Me" (Comden and Green/Bernstein), "Can't We Be Friends" (Kay Swift/Paul James), "On My Way to You" (Marilyn and Alan Bergman/Michel Legrand), "The Way You Look Tonight" (Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern), "Out of Love" and "The Last Song" (Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich) and The Secret Garden's "Come to My Garden" and "How Could I Ever Know?" (Lucy Simon/Marsha Norman). Feinstein's at the Regency is located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. There is a $60 cover and a $40 minimum for all shows. For reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit www.feinsteinsattheregency.com.

Ute Lemper, who gave birth to new son Julian Lazaar Lemper Turkisher Nov. 1, will return to the Cafe Carlyle in 2006. The statuesque chanteuse will play the intimate cabaret Feb. 7-25, 2006. Show times are Tuesday-Thursday evenings at 8:45 PM and Friday and Saturday nights at 8:45 and 10 PM. The Café Carlyle is located within the Carlyle Hotel at Madison Avenue and 76th Street. For reservations call (212) 744-1600; visit www.thecarlyle.com for more information.

Tony Award winner Kristin Chenoweth, most recently on Broadway in Wicked, will perform an evening at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in February. Presented by Old Navy, the acclaimed singing actress will perform in concert at the new venue Feb. 26, 2006. Chenoweth is scheduled to perform tunes from Wicked, contemporary songs and works from her latest solo recording, "As I Am." Pop star Alanis Morissette will join Chenoweth for a duet, which will conclude the evening. Tickets for Chenoweth's upcoming concert will go on sale Dec. 12 at 10 AM by calling (213) 480-3232 or (714) 740-2000. Tickets can also be purchased by visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

And, finally, there are still a few tickets left for the Actors' Fund of America's benefit concert of A Wonderful Life, which will be presented Dec. 12 at 7 PM at the Shubert Theatre (225 West 44th Street). The principal cast of the starry event includes Brian Stokes Mitchell as George Bailey, David Hyde Pierce as Clarence the angel, Judy Kuhn as Mary Bailey, Dominic Chianese as Mr. Potter, Karen Ziemba as the MC, Philip Bosco as Joseph, Marian Seldes as Mrs. Hatch, Ronn Carroll as Tom Bailey, Marc Kudisch as Sam Wainwright, Michael Berresse as Harry Bailey, Nancy Anderson as Violet, Chuck Cooper as Uncle Billy, Phylicia Rashad as Millie Bailey, George S. Irving as Mr. Martini and Jane Houdyshell as Mrs. Martini. Based on the famed Frank Capra film "It's a Wonderful Life," A Wonderful Life features book and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by the late Joe Raposo with additional music by Harnick and Jerry Depuit. For tickets, priced $75-$1,000, call (212) 221-7300, ext. 133. Visit www.actorsfund.org for more information.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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