DIVA TALK: The Best of 2006

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: The Best of 2006 News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Chenoweth in Apple Tree; Company; Hudson in
Chenoweth in Apple Tree; Company; Hudson in "Dreamgirls"; Ebersole in Gardens; Foster in Drowsy; Luker in Poppins; Marshall & Robert Cuccioli in Brel; Peters; Groff & Michele in Spring Awakening; Streisand.

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 musicals and/or musical performances on the theatrical and concert stages as well as one movie musical. I limited my selections to those productions that opened on or after Jan. 1, 2006. And, to widen my canvas, anyone who appeared on my "10 Best of 2005" list was not eligible this year.

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 2007.

THE 10 BEST OF 2006 (in somewhat alphabetical order):

KRISTIN CHENOWETH
Had she been alive during the Golden Age of Broadway, composers would have lined up to write musicals for this unique talent, who combines a gorgeous, rangy soprano with near-perfect comic timing and an often-bubbly, magnetic stage personality. Those gifts were seen to full advantage in the blockbuster Stephen Schwartz-Winnie Holzman musical Wicked — Chenoweth created the role of the curly-locked Glinda. The Tony-winning actress, who has been amassing an impressive array of screen credits, is back on stage this season in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of The Apple Tree at Studio 54. Chenoweth has the chance to portray several characters in the three-act musical by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick — Eve, Princess Barbára, Ella and Passionella — and she delights with her portrayals of all four markedly different women. Yet, it is her simple rendition of "What Makes Me Love Him," which concludes the show's first act, that is the most moving and memorable.

COMPANY
As much as I loved the recent revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd — which cast Tony winners Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris in John Doyle's actor-musician staging — I'm even more impressed by Doyle's work for the revival of Sondheim and George Furth's Company. Sweeney is an ageless masterpiece, one that can work in a variety of stagings, but Company has proven a bit problematic. In fact, previous productions of the show have left me rather cold; although I've always loved the Sondheim score, Furth's book, fresh and innovative to audiences in the early seventies, has seemed somewhat dated in recent productions. This is not at all the case, however, with Doyle's new staging at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Somehow, having the actors double as the show's orchestra makes the book come alive in unexpected ways, and the entire show seems as relevant as ever. Leading man Raul Esparza has also never been better, bringing a palpable longing to his work as birthday-boy bachelor Bobby, especially in his beautiful renditions of "Marry Me a Little" and the climactic "Being Alive." There is also fine work from Barbara Walsh as the acerbic, wise-cracking, triangle-playing Joanne, who delivers a powerful "The Ladies Who Lunch"; and Heather Laws, who stops the show with the tongue-twisting "Getting Married Today." And, the staging of "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" — with April (Elizabeth Stanley), Kathy (Kelly Jeanne Grant) and Marta (Angel Desai) supplying saxophone licks rather than vocal trills — is simply brilliant. "DREAMGIRLS"
It took over 25 years for Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen's Dreamgirls to make the jump from stage to screen, but the wait seems to have been justified. The new DreamWorks/Paramount film, which opened nationwide Christmas Day, simply overflows with music, emotion and talent. Directed by Bill Condon, who also wrote the film's screenplay, "Dreamgirls" casts former "American Idol" contestant Jennifer Hudson as Effie White, the role of the struggling singer created onstage by Jennifer Holliday. Like the Tony-winning Holliday, Hudson provides a gut-wrenching version of the powerful ballad "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" that is one of the most moving movie-musical performances this writer can recall. Hudson also brings much warmth and humor to her role, yet she is not the only actor offering a splendid performance. Tony winner Anika Noni Rose, who delighted Broadway audiences in Caroline, or Change, glows onstage as Lorrell Robinson, and pop star Beyonce Knowles hits her stride in the second half of the film when she belts out one of the new tunes Krieger wrote for the film, "Listen." Eddie Murphy is, perhaps, the film's biggest surprise, offering terrific vocal and acting work as the ill-fated James "Thunder" Early.

CHRISTINE EBERSOLE and MARY LOUISE WILSON
After winning every major award available to her for her dazzling performance in the Playwrights Horizons production of Grey Gardens, Christine Ebersole brought her portrayals of Edith Bouvier Beale and "Little" Edie Beale to Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre earlier this season. The new musical, which features a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, was inspired by the 1975 documentary of the same name that captured the lives of the two Beales, who were then living in squalor in what had once been a luxurious estate. Ebersole portrays both women with staggering emotional detail: the spotlight-hungry mother Edith in the first half of the evening and the middle-aged, nonconformist Little Edie in the second. Her gorgeous soprano is period-perfect in a first act that culminates with the beautiful ballad "Will You?" But it's in the second half of the evening where Ebersole truly shines, bringing Little Edie to full life. Her delivery of "Around the World" and "Another Winter in a Summer Town" will not soon be forgotten. . . . In her own award-winning career, Mary Louise Wilson has played a remarkable array of characters — including fashion editor Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop, the acclaimed play she penned with Mark Hampton — but perhaps none has been quite as colorful as her current assignment. Wilson portrays the older Edith Bouvier Beale opposite Ebersole in the second half of Grey Gardens. Wilson brings delightful comic timing and a big Broadway belt to her role and makes more of songs about cake ("The Cake I Had") and corn ("Jerry Likes My Corn") than one would think humanly possible. Wilson was a standout in the revival of Cabaret, and she is here as well.

SUTTON FOSTER and BETH LEAVEL
Tony Award winners Sutton Foster and Beth Leavel play, respectively, Janet Van De Graaff and the title character in the joyous, charming, delightfully clever and ultimately moving musical at the Marquis Theatre, The Drowsy Chaperone. Foster, who possesses a crystal-clear, rangy and powerful Broadway belt, is also a talented actress and dancer, but it is her remarkable gift for comedy that, for me, sets her apart from many of her peers. Chaperone allows Foster the chance to further explore those gifts, which she first displayed to Tony-winning effect as Millie Dillmount. As Janet, the young starlet who is about to leave showbiz behind for the love of her life, Foster also has the chance to strut her stuff in one of the evening's most thrilling offerings, a tour de force simply titled "Show Off." Leavel, who received a Tony Award for her performance as the tipsy Chaperone, also has the chance to shine, earning laugh after laugh with every knowing glance and deadpan line delivery. She also thrills with her no-holds-barred, scenery-chewing, belty version of "As We Stumble Along" and provides one of the musical's funniest moments as Man in Chair recalls the one line of the show-within-the-show he could never quite comprehend.

REBECCA LUKER
The Broadway production of Mary Poppins boasts a top-notch cast — including Ashley Brown in the title role and Gavin Lee as Bert — but the performance I enjoyed most in the lavish Disney-Cameron Mackintosh musical was delivered by Rebecca Luker, who was Tony-nominated for her work in the revivals of Show Boat and The Music Man. Since her Broadway bow as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera, it has always been clear that Luker possesses one of the most thrilling sopranos in the business, but in the past 15 years she has also grown into a fine actress and a formidable stage presence. In fact, the warmth she exudes as Mrs. Banks is so palpable, one almost wonders why this family would even need a flying nanny. But, it should be noted, it is a treat to watch Brown fly through the New Amsterdam Theatre and lead the cast in such classics as "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "A Spoonful of Sugar."

GAY MARSHALL
Some of the more exciting vocals of the year were heard Off-Broadway in the current revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the Zipper Theatre, where Gay Marshall is still belting up a storm, singing the songs of the late Belgian performer with a mix of power and deeply felt emotion. Marshall, who kicks off the Gordon Greenberg-directed revue with "Le Diable (Ca Va)," has been handed some of Brel's most haunting songs, including "My Childhood," "Sons Of," "Marieke" and "Carousel." She is at her best on the two war-themed offerings, "Sons Of" and "Marieke," her throaty alto and her never-wavering sincerity penetrating the heart of the listener. Marshall also stands out on the new Brel cast recording, which was recently released on the Ghostlight Records label. Just listen to the way she builds "My Childhood," charting early reminiscences that lead to a passionate remembrance of first love: ". . .and his first tender touch, my first taste of love. I wanted to fly. And I swear that I flew. My heart glowed like the sun."

BERNADETTE PETERS
On May 1 at Avery Fisher Hall Bernadette Peters stood centerstage in a solo spotlight and delivered a haunting, moving version of the Into the Woods anthem "No One Is Alone" that underscored life's uncertainties and despairs, but more so, the possibility of a revitalizing human connection. The expression is overused, but, truly, one could have heard a pin drop as Peters gently caressed the Sondheim lyric, "Hard to see the light now/ just don't let it go/ things will be alright now/ we can make it so." Some 90 minutes later, with the house lights up, Peters offered her second encore, Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings [Instead of Sheep]," and that same pin would have echoed throughout the cavernous Avery Fisher Hall as Peters sang the simple Berlin sentiment with a touching sincerity. It's a testament to her many talents and the warmth that she exudes on stage that Peters can hold an audience so firmly in her grasp for as long as she chooses. The sold-out evening, which featured Peters in splendid voice — her powerful belt augmented by her lovely soprano tones — also included heartbreaking renditions of "Time Heals Everything" and "Not a Day Goes By" as well as playful versions of "Nothing Like a Dame" and "Fever" and a joyful "Unexpected Song." Part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, the concert focused primarily on the works of Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Peters was equally at home whether singing the praises of "Mr. Snow," fretting that "The Gentlemen Is a Dope" or expressing the sentiments that "Children Will Listen" and "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." Other highlights included her riveting delivery of "Some Enchanted Evening," a beautiful take on the American classic "Shenandoah," a triumphant "Being Alive" and a definitive "Move On." She also scored with a powerful and thoroughly moving encore of "Rose's Turn" that instantaneously brought the enthusiastic crowd to its feet.

SPRING AWAKENING
Something quite unexpected happened when Spring Awakening journeyed from its much-extended Off-Broadway engagement at the Atlantic Theater Company to its current Broadway home at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. What had been an enjoyable, thought-provoking evening Off-Broadway became a magical experience on Broadway, the best new musical of the season to date. The show has also ushered in a slew of fresh, young talent, namely Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele, who play, respectively, Melchior and Wendla, the two lovestruck teenagers lost in a world of repression. Spring Awakening is one of the great examples of theatrical collaboration: Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's rock score, which pulses with vitality; Bill T. Jones' often-thrilling choreography; Kevin Adams' striking lighting design; Christine Jones' unique set design, which features audiences members on both sides of the stage; and Michael Mayer's deceptively simple staging all combine to produce a powerful musical that looks like it will have a deservedly long run on Broadway.

BARBRA STREISAND
In October I received an invitation that I will probably never be offered again: the chance to attend a Barbra Streisand dress rehearsal at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, PA. The afternoon performance was the first Streisand would give before launching her recent acclaimed concert tour, which was co-directed by the star and Richard Jay-Alexander. Streisand, who, at 64, remains a striking figure, began her concert with Richard Maltby and David Shire's "Starting Here, Starting Now," and I have to admit hearing the sound of her voice live — those lush, rich, golden, rounded tones that seem to magically pour out of her — was surprisingly moving. There have been many singers throughout the years who, intentionally or not, have imitated her sound, but when hearing Streisand live, one quickly realizes there is no substitute for the real thing. One of the many things that struck me during the generous, three-hour concert was the warmth that Streisand exudes on stage. And, not only is she tremendously intelligent — evidenced in both her spoken word and her lyrical interpretations — she is also extremely funny, joking throughout the show, often at her own expense. In an afternoon of one superb performance after another, my favorites included "The Way We Were" (there was a gentle hush as Streisand delivered the opening lines, and I suspect there was nary a dry eye as she finished the Marvin Hamlisch-Alan and Marilyn Bergman tune on a beautiful sustained, almost ethereal high note); the Funny Girl anthem "People" (the crowd jumped to its feet as Streisand's voice soared on the song's climax: "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world!"); a wonderful, poignant medley of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" and Sondheim's "Children Will Listen"; "Unusual Way" (Streisand's voice was perfectly suited to the beautiful Nine ballad, and her acting of the song was also impeccable. In fact, it made one long to hear what she could do with some of the more current theatre scores); and a particularly impressive rendition of "Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?"

***

OTHER 2006 VOCAL HIGHLIGHTS
Betty Buckley: "Stardust" and "Get Here" (at the Blue Note)
Lisa Howard: "Holding to the Ground" (Falsettoland Miracle House benefit at New World Stages)
Capathia Jenkins: "Stop the Show" (Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me at the Jacobs Theatre)
Judy Kuhn: "Meadowlark" (Lyrics and Lyricists' Harnick: Collector's Items [Other People's Lyrics] at the 92nd Street Y)
Leslie Kritzer: "Tambourine Man" and "Rainbow High" (Leslie Kritzer Is Patti LuPone at Les Mouches at Joe's Pub)
Patti LuPone: "My Buddy" and "I Wanna Be Around" (The Lady with the Torch at the Vivian Beaumont Theater)
Andrea McArdle: "Doatsy Mae" (the Actors' Fund's The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas benefit concert at the August Wilson Theatre)
Alice Ripley: "I Miss the Mountains" and "Broadway Baby" (Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley Sing Broadway! at Town Hall)
Anne Runolfsson: "Stars and the Moon" and "Let It Sing" (the Duplex)
Emily Skinner: "No One Is Alone" and "Sleepy Man" (Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley Sing Broadway! at Town Hall) ***

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

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