DIVA TALK: The Best of 2007

DIVA TALK: The Best of 2007 News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Karen Akers
Karen Akers

*

Hello, diva lovers! This week's column offers a backwards glance at the year that comes to a close early next week. This year's "best of" list includes favorite musicals and/or musical performances on the theatrical and concert stages. To widen my canvas, anyone who appeared on my "10 Best of 2006" 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 2008.

THE 10 BEST OF 2007 (in alphabetical order):

KAREN AKERS
I've been attending Karen Akers' concerts since I was about 16 (I still miss the Ballroom, the Chelsea nightspot with ringside seating that was Akers' longtime cabaret home). Akers, whose dark, rich voice sounds like no one else's in the business, made an emotional breakthrough in her singing this past year that was riveting. Not that she hasn't always been a terrific singer — performing carefully chosen material with honesty and deep understanding — but she reached a new plateau and is now singing with an emotional nakedness that she had heretofore not displayed. That change was evident in her spring salute to the late Gypsy composer Jule Styne, which was titled Simply Styne. Most astonishing was Akers' rendition of the little-heard "How Could I Know?" that evoked tears from the singer, who is best known to Broadway audiences for her work in the original casts of Nine (Tony nomination) and Grand Hotel. I admit that I do miss the Brel, the Piaf and the Craig Carnelia premieres that used to comprise Akers' shows, but I'm thrilled with her continual evolution as a singing actress and look forward to her return to the Algonquin in May.

Laura Benanti in the Encores! production of Gypsy
photo by Joan Marcus

LAURA BENANTI
When I first heard that Patti LuPone would be starring in the City Center Encores! Summer Stars production of Gypsy this past July, my first choice for the role of Louise was Laura Benanti. Okay, well, Benanti was also my pick for the lead in Mary Poppins and Cosette in the revival of Les Misérables, so I guess I was eventually bound to get it right at some point. But Benanti — who owns one of the more gorgeous voices of her generation — surpassed my expectations in the role of the tomboyish Louise who blossoms into famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Who knew "Little Lamb" was such a moving song? I don't think anyone has ever invested that Stephen Sondheim-Jule Styne tune with more emotion. (And, please, somebody find a better lamb for Benanti for Gypsy's upcoming Broadway run.) Benanti also offered one of the more impressive transformations from Louise to Gypsy: When she stood in front of the mirror and said, "I'm a pretty girl, Mama," her beauty was striking and the moment quietly moving. She also managed to hold her own in the powerful dressing-room scene with LuPone that precedes "Rose's Turn." In fact, her acting in that scene was perhaps her finest stage work to date: There were true emotional fireworks on that City Center stage.

Betty Buckley

BETTY BUCKLEY
What a year it's been for Betty Buckley, who signed with the Playbill Records label, which issued her never-before-released solo debut recording, "Betty Buckley 1967," in October. Anyone who has been reading this column for the past decade or so knows that this diva lover is an unabashed admirer of the limitless talents of Buckley, so it will come as no surprise how honored I was to be asked to pen the liner notes for the wonderful CD that was recorded by the Tony-winning actress at the age of 19. As I said in those notes, "It is indeed a rarity when something one has waited years for lives up to expectations, but I can say, without any reservations whatsoever, that 'Betty Buckley 1967' was worth the wait. The recording . . . reveals a voice whose beauty is second to none. From the moment the recording begins — with Bye Bye Birdie's 'One Boy' — one can't help being uplifted by the joyous sounds of Buckley's voice. " And, Buckley in 2007 proved she has only gotten better as the years have passed. In her solo Town Hall concert debut this past October, Buckley dazzled with an eclectic evening that featured songs by Sondheim, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Andrew Lloyd Webber, James Taylor and more. At a time in her career when many would simply offer rote interpretations of their signature tunes, Buckley manages to find new meaning in her best-known songs, and she performs them with an emotional fragility that is entrancing. And, 2008 promises to be equally as exciting with her second Playbill Records release ("Quintessence") and her return to Feinstein's at Loews Regency (Feb. 5-23). Now if we could only get this wondrous talent back to Broadway!

Kerry Butler, with Curtis Holbrook and André Ward, in Xanadu
photo by Paul Kolnik

KERRY BUTLER
Who would have guessed that a film that flopped spectacularly in 1980 would be the inspiration for one of the more enjoyable musicals of the season? Okay, Xanadu (at the Helen Hayes Theatre) is not Sondheim, but it is a thoroughly entertaining evening, and that is due in large part to the performance of Kerry Butler, who plays Clio/Kira, the role created on screen by Olivia Newton-John. With her amusing Australian accent, her dead-on comic timing and that crystal-clear belt, Butler is offering her best work since she created the role of Penny Pingleton in the original cast of the Tony-winning musical Hairspray. Butler also has some great diva support from those comic geniuses Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman.

Liz Callaway

LIZ CALLAWAY
The more I hear Liz Callaway, the more I'm convinced she possesses one of the all-time great theatre voices. I saw the former star of Baby and Miss Saigon twice this past year, first at the Metropolitan Room, where she offered her first extended New York cabaret run since she played several Sundays at the Duplex in 1980; and second, as a guest at Karen Mason's joyous holiday concert at Symphony Space. Callaway is so at ease in her performance and so vocally in control, one can just sit back and listen to that glorious voice pour out of her. It is a lush voice that can charm, soothe and impress. Among the highlights of her cabaret program, which was titled Between Flights, were a soaring version of Stephen Schwartz's "Meadowlark"; a touching rendition of Wicked's "I'm Not That Girl" that melted into John Bucchino and Lindy Robbins' "Just Another Face"; a haunting version of "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" that Callaway built expertly; a vocally exciting "There Won't Be Trumpets"; and her signature tune, "The Story Goes On" from Maltby and Shire's Baby. As she belted out, "and thus it is our story goes on and on and on. . .," I couldn't help remember the excitement that filled the Ethel Barrymore Theatre during Baby's penultimate performance in July 1984. What's quite extraordinary is Callaway's voice seems remarkably unchanged since she debuted that song over two decades ago.

The cast of Hair at the Public's Delacorte Theater
photo by Aubrey Reuben

HAIR AT THE DELACORTE
Within the past decade, I've had the pleasure of catching a few different productions of Hair, the 1967 rock musical that produced such hits as "Aquarius," "Good Morning Starshine" and "Let the Sunshine In." As much as I enjoyed my previous Hair encounters, I was unprepared for the emotional response I had to the Public Theater production at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in September. The three-night Hair concerts — directed by Diane Paulus with choreography by Karole Armitage — celebrated the musical's 40th anniversary; though four decades old, the musical seemed as relevant today as it must have been when it premiered at the Public in October 1967. Perhaps that relevance, especially the realization that men are still killing each other on battlefields around the world, made the final image of Claude's dead body, alone on an empty stage, profoundly moving. From the moment the musical began — with a powerful version of "Aquarius," belted with ease by Patina Renea Miller — one knew the evening would be special. Part of the immense pleasure of the production was seeing so many new faces, whose joy in singing the James Rado-Gerome Ragni-Galt MacDermot score was palpable. Other standouts of the cast included Karen Olivo, who belted out an emotional "Easy to Be Hard" that clearly elucidated the song's lyric; Bryce Ryness, who reveled in his role as the sexually ambiguous Woof; Allison Case, who delivered a delicious version of "Frank Mills"; Will Swenson, who brought a dynamic energy to his work as Berger; and the delightfully ditzy Kacie Sheik, who shone in all her acting and vocal moments as the pregnant Jeanie. And, then there was Jonathan Groff, the Tony-nominated star of Spring Awakening, who undertook the pivotal role of the self-questioning and ultimately ill-fated Claude. Sporting a period wig, the open-faced actor was the highlight of the concert, demonstrating that his charm and acting abilities are not limited to students in 1890s Germany. His high-voltage, life-affirming delivery of "I Got Life" rightfully received the loudest applause of the evening, and his performance of the Act One finale, "Where Do I Go?," was equally thrilling. Groff also scored with "Manchester England," and his work in the show's finale was completely stirring. This was a Hair for the ages.

Judy Kuhn as Fantine in Les Misérables
photo by Joan Marcus

JUDY KUHN
I'm including Judy Kuhn on this year's "Best of" list for two reasons — for her wonderful new recording, "Serious Playground: The Songs of Laura Nyro" (Ghostlight Records), and for her touching performance as Fantine in the current revival of Les Misérables at the Broadhurst Theatre. On the former, Kuhn has applied her silvery, vibrato-filled tones and her gifts as an actress to 14 Nyro tunes, none more stunning than a slowed-down, lyric-intense rendition of "Stoney End." Having been covered by the likes of Linda Rondstadt and Barbra Streisand, "Stoney End" may be Nyro's most famous song. Kuhn's version holds its own with the previous renditions, and her take may be the most moving; in fact, her "Stoney End" may be my single favorite track of any new recording this year. I was also thrilled that Kuhn got the chance to return to the Broadway stage for the first time in several years, playing Fantine, the mother of the character (Cosette) she had created in the original New York production of Les Misérables in 1987. Kuhn is currently offering a beautiful, multi-layered performance as the ill-fated Fantine, who sells her hair, her locket and eventually herself to help pay for the upbringing of her child. Her renditions of "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Come to Me" are not only terrifically sung but emotionally wrenching, and when she reappears at the end of the musical to accompany Valjean to the next world — while watching over the now-grown Cosette — it is an extremely powerful image.

Patti LuPone in Gypsy
photo by Joan Marcus

PATTI LuPONE
When you've been an admirer of someone's talents as long as I have been of Patti LuPone's (I was 11 when I was first bowled over by LuPone's Evita), it's quite a testament to her gifts as an actress and singer that she can still manage to surprise and thrill me with her many talents. Such was the case this past summer during the aforementioned City Center production of Gypsy. The intensity that LuPone would bring to the nervous breakdown that is "Rose's Turn" I had expected; what she did with "Everything's Coming Up Roses" I had not. LuPone began the song with a mix of optimism and desperation, trying to cling more to the former than the latter, but midway through something snapped, and as she tore June's letter with a fury, an unsettling madness entered. With a crazed look of determination, she became a woman possessed, and as she sang "Everything's coming up roses for me and for you" — with an emphasis on the "me" — it was a completely startling moment that made one shudder. This was just one of many thrilling moments in LuPone's triumphant Rose: a performance that was as exciting vocally as it was emotionally layered. In fact, throughout the entire evening — from the moment the curtain rose to reveal the 25-piece onstage orchestra through LuPone's emotionally devastating final scene with Laura Benanti's Louise — there was a palpable feeling of electric energy in the theatre. In 1990, when I had my first experience with Gypsy (Tyne Daly), little would I have known that I would have the great pleasure of watching my three favorite musical theatre actresses — Betty Buckley (1998 at the Paper Mill Playhouse), Bernadette Peters (2003 at the Shubert Theatre) and now Patti LuPone (2007 at City Center) — spin their magic as Rose. Each has created extremely different, yet wholly thrilling portrayals of the stage mother of all stage mothers, and they are all indelibly etched in my mind. And, I look forward to catching LuPone's magnificent Rose again this spring at the St. James Theatre — on Broadway!

Audra McDonald in 110 in the Shade
photo by Joan Marcus

AUDRA McDONALD
To me, four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald offered the most moving performance on a Broadway stage during the past year. Her work as the "plain" Lizzie who learns to love herself and others in the Tony-nominated revival of 110 in the Shade was my favorite McDonald outing since she gave Zoe Caldwell a run for her money in the Tony-winning Terrence McNally play Master Class. I know there was much talk about McDonald's performance of "Raunchy" (which she preserved on the Tony Awards telecast), but I was most impressed by the emotion she brought to "Old Maid," which closed the first act of the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt-N. Richard Nash musical at Studio 54. And, during "Wonderful Music," when both Starbuck (Steve Kazee) and File (Christopher Innvar) professed their love for Lizzie, I had to restrain myself from sobbing. Watching McDonald's reaction as the rain poured down onto the stage during the show's finale was a chance to see a dynamic singing actress at the peak of her powers.

Anneliese van der Pol, Beauty and the Beast's final Belle.
photo by George Holz

ANNELIESE VAN DER POL
I have to admit when I heard that Anneliese Van Der Pol would be the final actress to play Belle in the long-running production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, I said, "Who?" I had never heard of the young actress, who stars in TV's "That's So Raven," so I was a bit skeptical as I took my seat for the final performance of Beauty, Disney's first foray into the world of Broadway musical theatre. But Van Der Pol quickly won me over with her performance and her thrilling belt that enlivened songs I had heard several times before. There was something Judy Garlandesque about her open-throated singing and the way she delivered her lines that was utterly transfixing. Let's hope the talented Van Der Pol graces us with her presence again soon. Well, that's all for now. Wishing you a Happy New Year and, of course, happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.