DIVA TALK: The Best of 2003

News   DIVA TALK: The Best of 2003 Happy New Year, diva lovers! I enjoyed so many wonderful performances in the past twelve months that it was quite difficult to choose a "Top Ten." However, these were the ones that immediately came to mind, and those who regularly read this column may be surprised that a few men even made this year's list!
Bernadette Peters in Gypsy
Bernadette Peters in Gypsy

I am very thankful that I was able to catch all of these performances, and I hope the year to come brings as many memorable ones on the theatrical and concert stages. Wishing you all much joy and peace in 2004.

THE 10 BEST OF 2003 (in somewhat alphabetical order):

BETTY BUCKLEY

It was Off-Broadway where one of Broadway's most talented performers shone in 2003, in the William Finn revue Elegies, which also featured touching performances from Carolee Carmello, Michael Rupert, Keith Byron Kirk and Christian Borle. Buckley portrayed an array of characters, some humorous, some heartbreaking and illuminated each with a dazzling intensity. In "Only One," the Tony Award winner appeared in the guise of a strict, disciplined and dying English teacher who needs "only one" student to understand what she is teaching. Her rendition of "Infinite Joy" was the show-stopper of the Finn evening — she built the song to a belty finale, exclaiming, "Life has infinite, infinite jooooyyyyyyy!" Buckley and Carmello dueted on "Dear Reader," but it was her duet with Borle on "14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts" that provided one of the most heartfelt moments of the evening and the theatre season. The song chronicled one last drive through the town where Buckley and Borle's characters spent a good portion of their lives. Truly moving.

KRISTIN CHENOWETH and IDINA MENZEL Stephen Schwartz's newest musical — at the Gershwin Theatre — allows two performers with strikingly different styles to dazzle: Kristin Chenoweth, as Glinda, displays her remarkable vocal versatility, belting some tunes and letting her rangy soprano soar on others. (She also has been given many of the show's best lines, and who could resist her starry, bubbly entrance?) And, Idina Menzel is currently offering her most impressive performance since her Broadway debut as Maureen in the original company of Rent. As Elphaba, the not-so-Wicked Witch of the West, Menzel is funny, often touching and presents a passionately sympathetic performance of a woman whose outward differences force her to confront the ignorance of those around her. Menzel also scores with several Schwartz tunes, including the belty "The Wizard and I" and the lovely ballad, "I'm Not That Girl."

STEPHANIE D'ABRUZZO and JOHN TARTAGLIA

Two of the most enjoyable performances — make that four — are currently being offered at the John Golden Theatre in my favorite new musical of the season, Avenue Q. Both Tartaglia and D'Abruzzo gloriously bring to life two different characters. Tartaglia portrays Rod, the closeted gay Republican who has a "girlfriend who lives in Canada," and Princeton, whose arrival in the outer borough neighborhood begins the story; and D'Abruzzo charms as the boyfriend-searching Kate Monster and the boyfriend-stealing Lucy T. Slut. The actors easily navigate between the show's hysterical and touching moments and display their exceptionally versatile voices in the clever, witty and tuneful score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Tartaglia scores with the uplifting "Purpose," and D'Abruzzo pulls at the heartstrings with the show's great ballad, "There's A Fine, Fine Line."

ELLEN GREENE

She didn't get the chance to re-create her acclaimed performance as Audrey — the ditzy plant-shop worker with a heart of gold — in the Broadway bow of Little Shop of Horrors, but Ellen Greene did prove that she still has the chops to play the role during her February concerts at the Public Theater. Greene's Joe's Pub concert was one of the most entrancing cabaret performances I had witnessed in a long time. Her emotional nakedness and fragility came across in most every number she performed: With tears streaming from her eyes in just about every song, I was completely captivated by her repertoire, which included a mix of pop and theatre tunes. Highlights of her generous set included her two Little Shop songs — compelling versions of "Somewhere That's Green" and "Suddenly Seymour" — Tori Amos' haunting "Winter," Peter Allen's "Pretty Pretty," a vocally rich "Someone To Watch Over Me" and the Three Penny Opera revenge song, "Pirate Jenny." Greene announced at the time that she was currently looking for backers for a solo recording, and one can only hope this multi-talented performer will also return to the stage. She's been away far too long.

HUGH JACKMAN

Last season, there was much made of the performance of film star Antonio Banderas, who made his Broadway debut in the Tony-winning revival of Nine. For me, however, it is another film star, Hugh Jackman, who is the real deal. Jackman is currently starring at the Imperial in The Boy From Oz, bringing to life the story of the late singer-songwriter Peter Allen. Jackman is simply sensational, offering one of the most exciting star performances I can remember. His joy of being on a Broadway stage is obvious, and that feeling spreads throughout the audience from the moment he takes the stage. He also possesses a strong, appealing baritone and scores on most every song he delivers. I particularly enjoyed his renditions of "The Lives of Me," "Quiet Please, There's a Lady On the Stage," "I Still Call Australia Home" and the 11 o'clock number, "Once Before I Go."

DONNA MURPHY

Is there anything Donna Murphy can't do? After triumphing (and nabbing two Tonys) for her performances in Passion and The King and I, the singer-actress now seems poised to bring home a third trophy for her comedic performance in the revival of Wonderful Town at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. I had first seen Murphy perform in the City Center Encores! mounting of the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical, so I knew what a perfect fit Murphy and Ruth Sherwood made, but it was still a thrill to see the actress again step into the shoes of the unglamorous aspiring writer who must contend with the harsh realities of being out of work in New York City and a sister who attracts all the male attention. But fear not for Ruth Sherwood (or Donna Murphy). After two hours of acting, singing (solos, duets, Broadway ballads and even some jazz riffs), and drawing laughs from nearly every line she utters, Ruth gets her man. Who could resist Murphy's show-stopping "One Hundred Easy Ways," her physicality in "Conga!" or her terrific, jazzed-up "Swing"? She's also brilliant reenacting the characters in the three laughably terrible manuscripts she submits to Greg Edelman's Robert Baker.

BERNADETTE PETERS

I can think of nothing on a Broadway stage during the past year that was more riveting than Bernadette Peters' "Rose's Turn" in the current revival of Gypsy at the Shubert Theatre. Peters took a song that had been delivered incredibly by others on The Great White Way and brought it to an even higher level. But it was not just her "Rose's Turn" that was thrilling; it was her entire performance, which was at times touching, funny and incredibly intense. From her first scene at Uncle Jocko's Kiddie Show auditions through her final, gut-wrenching "Turn," Peters perfectly captured — among other qualities — Rose's driving desperation. Peters also offered the sexiest Rose to ever hit the stage. She's one of the few to have played the part who makes the audience believe she could have actually been a successful performer had she been given the chance. This makes her ultimate breakdown even more pathetic, the talent that was never nurtured, the life that never was — and never will be. She and John Dossett's Herbie also had a palpable chemistry, igniting in a beautifully delivered "Small World" and dissolving in the harrowing second act dressing-room scene when Rose shockingly pushes daughter Louise to strip. I recently returned to the Shubert, and I'm happy to report that Peters' interpretation has grown more intense, and she has found even more humor in the Mr. Goldstone/hotel room sequence. It was and is a performance not to be missed.

ANNE RUNOLFSSON

In terms of sheer beauty, there are very few voices around that can compare with Anne Runolfsson's. Not only blessed with a powerful and remarkably rangy high belt, Runolfsson also possesses a ravishing, pure soprano. That voice was on display this season in the recent, much-too short-lived Off-Broadway revue, Listen to My Heart: The Songs of David Friedman. Runolfsson lent her beautiful sound to such Friedman gems as "What I Was Dreamin' Of," "Nothing in Common" and "We Can Be Kind." Thankfully her performance and that of her stellar co-star, Alix Korey, were preserved on CD.

HONORABLE MENTION: JULIA MURNEY belted her heart out in two of the season's most memorable one-nighters: concert versions of Chess and Children of Eden. Let's get this gal to Broadway soon! UP AND COMERS: There were two new voices — one guy and one gal — that thoroughly impressed me during the past year. Taboo's John McDaniel introduced EDEN ESPINOSA during his cabaret gig at Joe's Pub; Espinosa brought down the house with a sensational version of Get Here. Her singing must have also impressed composer Stephen Schwartz, who was in the audience that night — Espinosa is currently standing by for Idina Menzel in Wicked. . . Flower Drum Song chorus member and Ta-understudy TELLY LEUNG also made his cabaret debut this season and demonstrated the power, range and beauty of his magnificent tenor. Leung will be part of the upcoming reading of But I'm a Cheerleader, and we also hear that the gifted young actor will be back on Broadway next season.

REMINDERS

Liz Callaway in Concert:

Jan. 17, 2004 in Asheville, NC
Jan. 31 in Sibling Revelry in Boston, MA
Feb. 7 in Sibling Revelry in Riverfront, IL
Feb. 13 with Jason Graae in Salt Lake City, UT
Feb. 14 with Jason Graae in Palm Springs, CA
Feb. 26-28 with Jason Graae in West Palm Beach, FL
Feb. 29 with Stephen Schwartz and Friends in Wilton, CT
April 23 with Jason Graae in Sutter Creek, CA
April 24-25 with Jason Graae in San Rafael, CA
May 1 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY

Patti LuPone in Concert:

Jan. 23, 2004 at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Jan. 24, 2004 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL
Feb. 27-29, 2004 at the Myerhoff Hall in Baltimore, MD
March 12, 2004 at the New Jersey PAC in Newark, NJ
March 13 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ

Louise Pitre in Concert:

Jan. 31, 2004-Feb. 8 in Sweeney Todd with the Calgary Opera Company at the Jubilee Auditorium in Canada
Feb. 13 at the Capitol Theatre in Windsor, Ontario
Feb. 28 at the Sanderson Performing Arts Centre in Brantford, Ontario
Feb. 29 at the Silverthorn C.I. Auditorium in Toronto, Ontario

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!

Betty Buckley in <i>Elegies</i>
Betty Buckley in Elegies
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