DIVA TALK: The Best of 2004

DIVA TALK: The Best of 2004 News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tonya Pinkins in Caroline, or Change
Tonya Pinkins in Caroline, or Change Photo by Michal Daniel

Hello, diva lovers! This week's column offers a backwards glance at the year that comes to a close this weekend. This year's "best of" list includes favorite performances on the theatrical and cabaret stages as well as one television broadcast. I limited my selections to those productions that opened on or after Jan. 1, 2004, so repeat visits to Avenue Q, Gypsy and other favorite musicals that opened the previous year aren't included.

I'm thankful I was able to catch so many wonderful performances, and I hope the year to come brings even more memorable ones. Wishing you all much joy and peace in 2005.

THE 10 BEST OF 2004 (in somewhat alphabetical order):

BABY
I've always had a bit of a soft spot for the Richard Maltby/David Shire musical Baby, which I first became aware of during the 1984 Tony Awards broadcast when Liz Callaway, Catherine Cox and Beth Fowler premiered the musical's Act I showstopper, "I Want It All," for television audiences. If the 20th anniversary production of Baby at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse still revealed problems in Sybille Pearson's book, there was no denying the power of one of my favorite scores of the eighties. From the upbeat opening number, "We Start Today," to the moving finale, the score offered one treat after another. And, what a cast was assembled at the New Jersey theatre to deliver that score: Carolee Carmello, La Chanze, Moeisha McGill, Norm Lewis, Michael Rupert and Chad Kimball. As I've written before, Norm Lewis possesses the richest voice of any male performer on Broadway. Whether he was singing "Baby, Baby, Baby," "At Night She Comes Home to Me" or the Act II duet "With You," his lush baritone was a delight. And, he and La Chanze — she of the beautiful smile and voice — had the most palpable chemistry of any of the three couples. Then, there was Carolee Carmello — now bringing new life to Broadway's Mamma Mia! — whose focused performance was the anchor of this Baby. She was at once comic, touching and, of course, vocally astounding. The second-act ballad "Patterns," which had been cut from the original Broadway run, was restored to the score, and Carmello's delivery was tremendous. And, of course, the three women — Carmello, La Chanze and McGill — provided one of the most thrilling moments of the show when they exclaimed in the doctor's waiting room, "I Want It All." Other highlights: Chad Kimball's beautiful rendition of "I Chose Right" and McGill's belty first-act finale, "The Story Goes On."

BETTY BUCKLEY
Whether she's playing on a Broadway stage, the small or big screen or in a nightclub setting, Tony Award winner Betty Buckley always infuses her performances with an emotional honesty that can be heartbreaking (Cats, Sunset Boulevard) or downright shocking (Carrie, Gypsy at the Paper Mill Playhouse). It was in an intimate cabaret where Buckley shone in 2004, offering a program she titled Portraits. It was a more-than appropriate title for Buckley's beautiful program, since I've always felt that the actress approaches her material with the skills of a masterful painter. She is wholly unconcerned with renditions of songs that have come before her own and comes to each as an artist would a blank canvas, bringing her unique gifts to the lyric and melody at hand. If an artist has a palette of colors to choose from, Buckley has her own enormous array of vocal colors. There's aquamarine, azure, indigo, navy, royal, sapphire and turquoise, and that's only for singin' the blues. There are also the velvety browns of her chest voice, the smooth soft yellows of her head tones, the off-whites of her whispers, the dark black of her growls and the soaring, fiery reds of her wide-ranging belt. Yet, it is not just the voice that creates such magic, it is her consummate acting skills as well as her intelligent choice of material. Like a pointillist painting, all these elements somehow combine to form a masterwork, and audience members can't help but sit back and become mesmerized by the world of her artistry. Among the gems that comprised Buckley's compelling Portraits were "As Time Goes By," "Where or When," "Time After Time," "Dimming of the Day," "I Am a Town," "Blues in the Night," "How Glory Goes," "Unchained Melody," "On the Street Where You Live" and "I Could Have Danced All Night." Cabaretgoers will have another chance to witness her artistry when Buckley returns to the Carlyle with an all-new program March 1-April 9. And one can only hope Buckley is back on Broadway shortly thereafter. THE CALLAWAYS (Ann and Liz)
In terms of pure vocal tone, the most beautiful sound of the year past may have been the blending of voices of sisters Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway in their new cabaret act, Relative Harmony. In fact, when the siblings joined together in perfect harmony at Feinstein's at the Regency, the sound was, simply put, exquisite. After the success of their Sibling Revelry pairing at Rainbow & Stars in the mid-nineties, the talented duo reteamed for this brand-new show, and it was a virtually flawless evening from start (Gypsy's "Some People" with a few changed lyrics and a cute gag that set up many of the evening's sometimes-corny-yet-charming jokes) to finish (a reprise of their "Huge Medley" that now also boasts tunes from Wicked and Side Show). In fact, I was sorry when the "Huge Medley" ended — I could have listened to the duo sing all evening. Ann's dark, husky and jazz-flavored sound was the perfect complement for Liz's clear bell tones, and whether they were dueting on Van Morrison's "Moondance" or the jazz favorite "Cloudburst," the results were glorious. They also scored with a medley that featured Ann's belty "Stormy Weather" and Liz's equally belty "When the Sun Comes Out." And, when they sang the two standards at the same time, it was pure magic. The sisters also offered the tongue-in cheek "Here Come the Callaways," written by Ann that enumerated the many sister-acts that have come before: "There's Zsa Zsa and Eva, the sisters Gabor/And don't forget the Olsen twins — which one do you like more?/There's Liza and Lorna — we could go on for days, but/Here come the Callaways!" Should the Callaways come your way, be sure to check 'em out.

ELLEN GREENE
The more I see Ellen Greene perform, the more I realize that she is as engaging a concert artist as anyone working today. To borrow a lyric from Jerry Herman, Greene — best known as the original Audrey of the Off Broadway and film versions of Little Shop of Horrors — is her own special creation. This past October marked the third time I'd seen the actress-singer perform at Joe's Pub, and she never fails to bowl me over. Greene completely throws herself into each and every song, physically and emotionally: A steady stream of tears flow from her eyes during most of the numbers, and she is never less than riveting, whether she's singing her signature tunes, standards or pop/rock ballads. Not only extremely moving, she can also be funny, sexy and frighteningly intense. Much of Greene's recent show featured songs from her debut solo recording, the superb "In His Eyes," a disc she recorded with pianist-musical director (and husband) Christian Klikovits. Among the many highlights of her most recent evening of Torch were a touching "The Man With the Child in His Eyes," her unequaled version of Peter Allen's "Pretty Pretty" and the ferocious "Throwing Stones." She also scored with her two Little Shop of Horrors tunes, a comical yet moving "Somewhere That's Green" and a belty "Suddenly Seymour" that featured audience participation. Other mentionables: her terrific version of Tori Amos' haunting paternal tribute, "Winter"; Klikovits' "When Love Is Gone"; Jane Siberry's emotional "Love Is Everything"; and a thrilling encore of Kurt Weill's "Pirate Jenny."

PATTI LuPONE
Nearly 20 years after she thrilled Broadway audiences in Cole Porter's Anything Goes, Patti LuPone again demonstrated her many talents in another Porter musical, the City Center Encores! presentation of Can Can. It was impossible to deny that the power and presence of LuPone — both her vocal prowess and her comedic talents — lifted a rather dated musical to a joyous celebration. And, what a celebration it was! LuPone was given five Porter tunes, and she triumphed with them all. She somehow managed to make each song fresh and exciting, whether it was the sensuality she brought to "C'est Magnifique" (has anyone ever made more of that song's "ooh-la-lahs"?), the life lessons she explained in "Never Give Anything Away," the fiery passion she conveyed in "Live and Let Live" (she's got to record this at some point), the charm, sophistication and belting power she added to "I Love Paris" (some audiences were even treated to an on-the-spot encore) or the zest and lust for life that she brought to the title number. One can only hope that LuPone's performance gets the talented actress back where she belongs — on Broadway!

BETTE MIDLER
It took me 35 years to finally get to see Bette Midler live in concert, and now I understand why she is, to fans and critics alike, simply divine. I was able to catch the first leg of Midler's Kiss My Brass tour — directed by Richard Jay-Alexander — at the Meadowlands Continental Arena, and onstage she was a thrilling mix of singer, comedienne and social commentator. I was utterly impressed by Midler's musicianship during her rendition of the Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael standard "Skylark" — she played off the melody line at the song's beginning and then offered a beautiful take on the classic tune about searching for true love. I also particularly liked the staging of her signature tune, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy": As she belted out the Andrews Sisters hit live, three split screens featured Midler — dressed in various outfits — performing the song on a seventies television special. Other highlights included terrific takes on two Rosemary Clooney signature pieces, "Come On-A My House" and "Tenderly"; the moving "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today" from "Beaches"; a belty "When a Man Loves a Woman"; the first-act finale, "Shiver Me Timbers"; a medley of Broadway tunes; and a touching and thought-provoking "From a Distance." "Do You Want to Dance" preceded the show's finale, a full-voiced, joyous "Wind Beneath My Wings." Midler returned for two songs from her Oscar nominated turn in "The Rose," "Keep On Rocking" and Amanda McBroom's title tune. The latter brought the sold-out crowd to its feet. Midler, unlike anyone else on the concert circuit today, is a true force of nature.

ELAINE PAIGE
Britain's leading musical theatre actress scored another success on this side of the Atlantic when she played the pie-baking Mrs. Lovett in City Opera's limited engagement of Sweeney Todd. Paige, who made her Broadway debut as silent-screen star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, brought her golden tones and her impeccable comic timing to the staging of the Stephen Sondheim masterpiece. She sounded terrific singing such tunes as "The Worst Pies in London," "Poor Thing" and "By the Sea," drew laughs from her duet with Mark Delavan in the first-act closer "A Little Priest" and was appropriately desperate in the show's final sequence. I've now been lucky enough to see Paige in four musicals — Piaf, Sunset Boulevard, The King and I and Sweeney Todd — and she was truly wonderful in each, always managing to create a complete, believable character.

TONYA PINKINS
Hands-down the most dramatic performance in any Broadway musical that opened within the past year was given by Tonya Pinkins, who starred in the title role of Caroline, or Change. Pinkins portrayed the down-on-her luck Caroline, an African-American maid for a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana who must feed, house and clothe her children on $30 a week. Pinkins, who scored a Tony Award for her performance in Jelly's Last Jam, was simply remarkable in the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical, which began life at Off-Broadway's Public Theater before reopening on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill. From the moment she stepped onto the stage, she was never less than captivating. Pinkins, who was Tony-nominated for her work, completely inhabited the role of the dispirited and physically and emotionally exhausted Caroline; the anger she felt about her lot in life was palpable, and Pinkins exploded with rage several times during the through-sung musical. Possessing a thrilling, rich belt that she poured out repeatedly in the poignant production, Pinkins literally stopped the show with her second-act tour de force, "Lot's Wife." The song, the emotional equivalent of Gypsy's "Rose's Turn" with the vocal demands of Dreamgirls' "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," was delivered by the actress with a chilling intensity. It was an often grim, devastatingly real performance, and Pinkins was consistently moving, whether she was letting her anger spew at her college-attending friend Dotty or her employer's son Noah, hugging her daughter Emmie, or opening her soul and battlefield-of-a-heart in the aforementioned "Wife."

ALICE RIPLEY
It was during two concert evenings this past year when Alice Ripley once again proved that she is the most exciting belter of her generation. During the first — Broadway Unplugged at Town Hall — Ripley wrapped her wonderful (unmiked) voice around Triumph of Love's "Serenity." The performer, who is currently appearing in the Kennedy Center's The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber weekend, began "Serenity" gently, building to a stunning climax, belting "and suddenly, serenity, is merely a word I heeaaaaard, soommmmewheeeerrrrre!" It was not only powerfully sung, but beautifully acted. Ripley also scored in a recent evening at the Duplex, Belters We Have Heard on High, which celebrated the wonderful, often-touching lyrics of Bill Russell. The former Side Show star performed the title song from Russell's Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens; though I've heard numerous renditions of the song throughout the years, none moved me as much as Ripley's. She was particularly touching, infusing the song's final line with a tremendous amount of pathos: "And I sing this song for the souls who have gone—sweet angels, punks and raging queens." Ripley also thrilled that evening with everything she touched, including "She's Gone," a song cut from Russell and Henry Krieger's Side Show; "The Last Smoker in America," a tune from a new musical of the same name; and an a cappella version of Side Show's "I Will Never Leave You" that was exquisitely rendered. Though she's great in a concert setting, I'm particularly pleased that Ripley will be back on a theatrical stage this spring when she stars in the title role of the Paper Mill Playhouse's production of The Baker's Wife. Ever since the New Jersey theatre announced it would present the Stephen Schwartz musical, I had been not-so-secretly hoping that Ripley would land the lead role of Genevieve, the part created in the original, ill-fated production by Patti LuPone. I can hardly wait to hear Ripley pour out her voice and emotion in the beautiful Schwartz score, which features "Where Is the Warmth?," "Gifts of Love" and, of course, "Meadowlark."

58th ANNUAL TONY AWARDS
From Hugh Jackman's spirited opening number through the final, surprising Best Musical of the Year announcement, the 2004 Tony Awards turned out to be one of the most exciting telecasts in years. The broadcast was exactly what the Tonys should be — a joyous celebration of the theatre. And, in Jackman the Tonys finally found the perfect host — he was charming, modest, talented, appealing and loved being onstage. That love of performing was palpable even through the air waves and made for exciting television. In fact, Jackman's first number — "One Night Only" — was the most enjoyable opening since Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone and Jennifer Holliday joined Rosie O'Donnell for a diva lover's delight in 1998; Jackman's routine also featured three trios of divas — the Hairspray Dynamites, the urchins from Little Shop of Horrors and the radio from Caroline, or Change. And, what fun to see this boy from Oz high-kick with the Rockettes and then be joined by cast members from the nominated musicals and revivals. I particularly loved seeing Jackman flanked by Avenue Q's Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut. The telecast also featured moving acceptance speeches (especially heartwarming were those made by Caroline, or Change's Anika Noni Rose and Wicked's Idina Menzel), terrific musical numbers (rousing versions of Avenue Q's "It Sucks to Be Me" and Wicked's "Defying Gravity") as well as several other memorable moments (John Tartaglia as Rod flirting with host Jackman and the meeting of Carol Channing and Sean Combs to name but two). And, who could have predicted the show's final moment — the astonishing, joyous victory of Avenue Q as Best Musical? It was the first Tony Awards in several years that left me on a complete high.

Honorable mentions: The casts of Avenue Q and Fiddler on the Roof, who joined forces for what may be the funniest sketch in Easter Bonnet Competition history. The brilliant skit, entitled Avenue Jew, employed a mix of tunes from both musicals with revised lyrics by Randy Bobish, Rick Lyon, James Valletti, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Molly Ephraim, Jordan Gelber and Melissa Bohon. Cast members from both shows took part in the sketch, which began with Trekkie Monster playing the opening strains of Fiddler on the Roof on a fiddle only to eat and destroy the instrument after playing a few sour notes. . . . Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, the composers of "Taylor, the Latte Boy": Though their song has been around for a few years, I was particularly touched by two renditions this past year — Kristin Chenoweth, who included the song in her solo Carnegie Hall concert debut, and John Tartaglia, who performed the ballad during the Empty-Handed concerts at the Lucille Lortel . . . . The casts and creative teams of the star-studded benefit concerts of Snoopy, Hair and Pippin, who delivered terrific evenings for worthy organizations. . . . And, of course, the legendary Barbara Cook, who continued to amaze audiences in her latest solo evening, Barbara Cook's Broadway. Sadly, it would be her last Broadway outing with her long-time pianist/musical director Wally Harper, who died earlier this year. Harper's piano accompaniments and Cook's voice were the perfect musical marriage. Well, that's all for now. Happy holidays, and happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

(Look for a condensed version of "Diva Talk" in the theatre edition of Playbill Magazine.)