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 musical performances on the theatrical and cabaret stages as well as one posthumously released CD. I limited my selections to those productions that opened on or after Jan. 1, 2005, so repeat visits to 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 2006.
THE 10 BEST OF 2005 (in somewhat alphabetical order):
Storytelling has run throughout the course of human history and culture, from African-American folktales to our own Native Americans, who related tales of survival, observations of the world and the rituals and lessons of life that connect us all. In the past decade or so, Betty Buckley, the Tony-winning Broadway artist who has relocated to her native Texas, has become one of our greatest storytellers, continuing this ancient tradition in song. The actress, who played the Café Carlyle in March and April, is well known for the power and range of her Broadway belt, yet over the past few years she has begun to explore a more intimate styling that brings the true essence of a song more gently to the listener. That is not to say that Buckley doesn't let loose that thrilling, rich, rafter-raising belt, but she does so more sparingly, which makes the effect more exciting than ever. Buckley's spring program was titled Smoke, and many of the songs, she said at the time, "describe those exquisite, ephemeral moments that hit us so strongly and then dissolve in the mist as we try to remember or hang on to them." Highlights of the act included a wonderful pairing of two Antonio Carlos Jobim songs, "Dindi" and "How Insensitive"; the striking Mary Chapin Carpenter tune, "Where Time Stands Still"; and Sarah McLachlan's "Angel," which may have been the show's high point. Buckley also offered a definitive version of Julie Gold's haunting "Good Night, New York" as well as an encore of her signature tune, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory." Let's hope this multitalented actress returns to the New York stage in 2006.
For me The Light in the Piazza was the best musical of the 2004-2005 season, and new Tony winner Victoria Clark delivered the most beautiful performance of that Broadway season. I caught the Adam Guettel-Craig Lucas musical during previews and returned again this past summer: On my second visit I was even more taken with Lucas' book, which unfolds beautifully over the emotionally fulfilling two acts, and Guettel's Tony-winning score, which includes such ravishing tunes as "The Beauty Is," "Il Mondo Era Vuoto," "Dividing Day," "Say It Somehow," "Love to Me," "Fable" and, of course, "The Light in the Piazza." Clark, who also nabbed the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle prizes for her work, is simply perfect as doting mother Margaret Johnson from Winston-Salem, NC. She is one of the few musical theatre actresses whose comedic moments register as fully as her dramatic ones, and her performance builds over the two hours, culminating in the emotional explosion that is "Fable." It is a performance that is now one of my all-time favorites, and one not to be missed. LISA HOWARD
If a theatre award for Vocal Discovery of the Season existed, I'd give my vote to Lisa Howard, who plays Spelling Bee host Rona Lisa Peretti in the comical, charming and ultimately touching new William Finn-Rachel Sheinkin musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which began life at the Barrington Stage Company before transferring to Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre and eventually to Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre, where the upbeat show now happily resides. Howard's voice can be big and belty, though never forced, and her sound is equally lovely in quieter moments. The singing actress has also been handed some of the musical's most melodic offerings, including "My Favorite Moment of the Bee," which repeats throughout the show, as well as "The I Love You Song," a trio for Howard, Celia Keenan-Bolger (as Olive) and Derrick Baskin (as Olive's Dad). The latter song is the strongest of the score and features wonderful vocal and acting work from all three performers and creates the show's emotional high point. Although Howard was seen in the national tour of Les Misérables — where she often performed the role of Madame Thenardier — as well as in productions of Crazy for You, Cinderella, Das Barbecü, And the World Goes 'Round and Falsettos, Spelling Bee marks her Broadway debut, and I look forward to seeing (and hearing) more from this talented performer.
Just when it seemed the jukebox musical had taken its last breath, along comes Jersey Boys, the hit new musical at the newly renamed August Wilson Theatre. Jersey Boys proves that the jukebox form can work when a credible, entertaining book — one that builds to exciting moments — is fashioned around the tunes, especially when the tunes are as catchy as "Oh What a Night," "My Eyes Adored You," "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and "Working My Way Back to You." Such is the case with Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's Jersey Boys, which tells of the sensational rise of the sixties pop group Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. Admittedly, it takes a little while for the musical to kick into gear, but once The Four Seasons begin singing "Sherry," the musical — directed with style by Des McAnuff — takes hold of the audience and never lets go. Jersey Boys also boasts a terrific cast, with especially strong performances from Broadway newcomer John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli and the equally impressive Daniel Reichard as Bob Gaudio.
NANCY LaMOTT: Live at Tavern on the Green
There are singers with beautiful voices, those with perfect pitch who produce gorgeous sounds. There are singers who boast enormous ranges, belting powerful high Cs and beyond. There are singers who are also great actors, bringing a mix of high emotion to each and every song. And, then, there was Nancy LaMott. Yes, LaMott possessed a beautiful voice: a rich, lush, rounded, honey-toned sound that could be soft, sweet and creamy one minute and big and brassy the next. She also had an incredible range, belting Cs, Ds and E flats with the best of 'em. And, she certainly acted her songs exquisitely, bringing a lyric to life as honestly as possible. Yet, there was something more to this woman, who was the finest vocalist the cabaret world produced in the last several decades. LaMott, who died of cancer in 1995, had the remarkable ability to find the emotional center of any song she performed and often delivered what would become the definitive version of that song. Anyone who heard her renditions of "Moon River," "So in Love," "Blues Skies," to name but a few, would not argue that statement: LaMott somehow seemed to become the song she was singing. And, after an eight year wait, a "new" recording from the late singer was issued on the Midder Music label in February. What sets "Nancy LaMott—Live at Tavern on the Green" apart from her previous discs is the fact that it was recorded live in front of an audience — where the singer truly came to life, blossoming most fully. There is also one other major difference between this and previous LaMott discs. At the very end of her life, the 43-year-old performer had finally found true love, and her song choices, delivery and in-between patter during this Tavern on the Green engagement were all influenced by this blessed occurrence. Towards the end of the act, LaMott even jokes, "Well, we've come to the part of the show that normally I do a just gut-wrenching, slit your-wrist ballad, only I'm not going to do that this evening. I know, I know, you're all disappointed, but 'ya know, you grow, you change. I thought I would try something a little more positive." She then proceeds to deliver a heartfelt version of Alan and Marilyn Bergman and David Shire's "The Promise," and her exquisite delivery demonstrates that LaMott, whether singing songs of love lost or love found, was equally riveting.
Tony and Olivier Award winner Patti LuPone first assumed the guise of pie-maker extraordinaire Mrs. Nellie Lovett — opposite the Sweeney of George Hearn — for a weekend of Sweeney Todd concerts in May 2000. Anyone who thought LuPone was wonderful in those Lincoln Center evenings — thrillingly belting out the Sondheim score while offering a comical, sinister, yet touching portrayal of the ill-fated Lovett — will be astonished by the completely different interpretation that she is currently offering on Broadway. I've witnessed several Lovetts in various Sweeney productions throughout the years, but LuPone is the first to completely shatter the mold created by Tony winner Angela Lansbury, providing an equally viable Lovett worlds apart from the one audiences have become accustomed to ever since Sondheim's masterpiece debuted in 1979. LuPone's current Lovett is not only comical, sinister and touching, but she is also sexy, saucy, and a tuba-toting ensemble player. Director John Doyle and the entire cast — who double as the orchestra — should also be commended for creating this gritty, spellbinding and often riotously funny production of Sweeney Todd at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre.
I've heard "Meadowlark" sung so many times in the past two decades that as much as I still enjoy hearing the tune — as it offers the chance for a belter to strut her stuff — the song had stopped drawing much emotional response. That is until I heard Alice Ripley's rendition this past April in the Paper Mill Playhouse's production of The Baker's Wife. Ripley, who played Genevieve in the New Jersey production, delivered a superb rendition of the Stephen Schwartz ballad that was as powerfully sung as it was beautifully acted. She not only thrilled with the sheer volume of her tones, easily navigating the song's highest notes, but completely moved this listener as she acted out the song, which employs the tale of a meadowlark as a metaphor for Genevieve's own complicated relationships. Ripley also impressed with her two other solos, "Gifts of Love" in the first act and the touching "Where Is the Warmth?" in the second. And, her final scenes were also supremely moving, as she and the Baker (Lenny Wolpe) reconciled while the townspeople welcomed Genevieve back to their provincial village. Other highlights of the production: Max von Essen's soaring "Proud Lady" and Gay Marshall's charming "Chanson."
LEA SALONGA and LIZ CALLAWAY
Midway through her solo Carnegie Hall concert debut in November, which was directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, Tony Award winner Lea Salonga was joined on the stage of the famed hall by her former Miss Saigon co-star, Liz Callaway. Salonga and Callaway possess two of the finest voices in the musical theatre: pure, rich, creamy tones that can belt and soar with ease. After dueting on Maltby and Shire's "The Story Goes On," the two actresses then re-created a moment from Boublil and Schonberg's Saigon. Over a decade later, their rendition of "I Still Believe," the duet between the ill-fated Kim (Salonga) and the American soldier's new wife Ellen (Callaway) had lost none of its power. In fact, it was the first song of the evening to bring the sold-out Carnegie crowd to its feet for a lengthy standing ovation.
THE SECRET GARDEN
Most every Monday night will find theatre and cabaret artists generously donating their time and talent to raise funds for various charities. Many of these fundraising evenings are wonderful, but there was one this past season that was especially magical. It was the Third Annual World AIDS Day Benefit Concert of The Secret Garden, a night when the cast and the audience seemed to be in perfect unison as the emotion that wafted from the stage was sent flying back to the cast through thunderous ovations and cheers. 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. 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. 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. Sara Gettelfinger and Max von Essen managed to shine in the minor roles of Mary's deceased parents, while 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 — Jaclyn Neidenthal as Mary Lennox and Struan Erlenborn as Colin Craven — offered performances to rival their adult co-stars.
There is much build up to the arrival of Shug Avery — including a song titled "Shug Avery Comin' to Town" — in the new musical The Color Purple, which is based on the award-winning book and film of the same name. And, Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, who is astonishingly making her Broadway debut in the musical at the Broadway Theatre, does not disappoint. Although she arrives sick and in need of care, we quickly see that her spirit has not been diminished. In fact, it is unlikely that anything could keep this gal down. Withers-Mendes imbues the jazz singer, who makes both men and women swoon, with a mix of grace, charm and sensuality. Just watch the way she glides across the stage or delivers the show-stopping "Push Da Button." Withers-Mendes, however, isn't the only actress who dazzles in Purple: LaChanze (Celie), Felicia P. Fields (Sofia) and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Nettie) also offer beautiful performances in this ultimately moving production.
HONORABLE MENTIONS to the cast of A Broadway Diva Christmas — Ellen Greene, Kathy Brier, Maya Days, Christine Pedi and Marla Schaffel — who joined forces to offer a thrilling evening of song and comedy. I was especially impressed by the forceful belt of Brier, the delicious comic timing of Pedi and the unending talent and charms of Greene, who casts a spell over an audience whether she's singing or talking. In the past few years Greene has also thoroughly impressed with her evenings of Torch!; now would be the perfect time to get her back on Broadway. . . . and, of course, to the legendary Chita Rivera, who displays her star power and unique presence in Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Well, that's all for now. Happy New Year and, of course, happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.