DIVA TALK: Tonya's Turn PLUS Friedman and Akers on Disc

DIVA TALK: Tonya's Turn PLUS Friedman and Akers on Disc 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

TONYA PINKINS
Tonya Pinkins, who stars in the title role of the new Broadway musical Caroline, or Change, is offering the most dramatic performance in any new musical this season. Pinkins portrays 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, is simply remarkable in the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical, which began life at Off-Broadway's Public Theater before recently reopening on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill.

From the moment she steps onto the stage, Pinkins is never less than captivating in the musical, which explores Caroline's humble existence against a backdrop of social change prior to and following the assassination of President Kennedy. Pinkins completely inhabits the role of the dispirited and physically and emotionally exhausted Caroline; the anger she feels about her lot in life is palpable, and Pinkins explodes with rage several times during the through-sung musical. Possessing a thrilling, rich belt that she pours out repeatedly in the poignant production, Pinkins literally stops the show with her second-act tour de force, "Lot's Wife." It is the emotional equivalent of Gypsy's "Rose's Turn" with the vocal demands of Dreamgirls' "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," and Pinkins delivers it with a chilling intensity. It's an often grim, devastatingly real performance, and Pinkins is consistently moving, whether she's 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."

The Tony nominations will be announced on Monday, and I cannot imagine that Pinkins' name will not be on a list that should include Wonderful Town's Donna Murphy, Avenue Q's Stephanie D'Abruzzo and Wicked's Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. I also have a feeling that Pinkins may walk away with that Best Leading Actress in a Musical prize come June 6. Tony or not, Pinkins is currently giving a performance musical theatre lovers — especially diva fans — should not miss.

I was also impressed by the vocal talents of Anika Noni Rose as Caroline's daughter Emmie, and the ever-reliable Veanne Cox, who adds a touch of much-needed humor into the George C. Wolfe-directed show.

FOR THE RECORD:

Karen Akers: "If We Only Have Love"
Karen Akers, who is currently in the midst of a critically acclaimed run at the Algonquin Hotel, will release her latest solo album on the DRG Records label June 8. Entitled "If We Only Have Love," Akers has recorded many of the tunes that she performed during her 2003 stint at the Algonquin. The chanteuse has always been at her best when singing story songs, which may be why her newest disc, composed entirely of songs from the musical theatre, is so compelling. From beginning to end, Akers presents a baker’s dozen of theatre songs impeccably.

Akers possesses a deep, rich, vibrato-filled contralto that conveys a wealth of emotion as it climbs the scale, and she opens her recital with the little heard “Patterns,” Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire’s ode to a housewife’s struggles to break free from the imprisoning repetitions of her daily life. She follows with Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” and then offers a magical, slowed-down rendition of The Fantasticks’ ballad, “Try to Remember.”

Akers also scores with Jacques Brel’s “My Childhood,” which she originally performed during the 20th anniversary staging of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. It’s a beautiful, haunting song of a grim childhood almost shed by the first experience of love that Akers builds skillfully.

The high point of Akers’ disc, however, may be her triptych of tunes from Maury Yeston’s Nine. Akers starred as Luisa in the original Broadway production, and she offers her two solos, “My Husband Makes Movies” and “Be On Your Own.” And, no one performs them better. Her “Be On Your Own” is particularly belty and fierce, and her “My Husband Makes Movies” quite moving. The two are followed by a third Nine song, “Unusual Way,” an Akers repertoire staple that continues to impress.

Two medleys — one from Chess (“I Know Him So Well” and “Anthem”) and the other from West Side Story (“Somewhere” and “I Have a Love”) — are also impressive, and Akers concludes her disc with Jacques Brel’s anthem of hope, “If We Only Have Love.”

Musical director Don Rebic is featured on piano; he and Akers make a terrific musical pair.

The complete track listing for "If We Only Have Love" follows:
"Patterns" (from Baby)
"A Sleepin' Bee" (from House of Flowers)
"Try to Remember" (from The Fantasticks)
"My Childhood" (from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris)
"Send in the Clowns" (from A Little Night Music)
"My Husband Makes Movies" (from Nine)
"Be On Your Own" (from Nine)
"In a Very Unusual Way" (from Nine)
"I Know Him So Well"/"Anthem" (from Chess)
"Somewhere"/"I Have a Love" (from West Side Story)
"If We Only Have Love" (from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris)

Maria Friedman: "Maria Friedman Live"
Maria Friedman may be a new face on the New York scene — she played two engagements at the Cafe Carlyle this season — but musical-theatre-loving Londoners know the singer-actress is a three-time Olivier Award winner for her performances in the West End productions of Ragtime, Passion and Maria Friedman: By Special Arrangement.

A consummate actress, Friedman just released her latest solo recording, simply titled "Maria Friedman Live." Recorded live at London’s New Ambassadors Theatre in April 2002, the 19-track disc boasts an eclectic array of songwriters, ranging from musical theatre favorites like Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein to pop composers Suzanne Vega and Randy Newman. Friedman is a skilled interpreter, and she is at her best when singing gently, quietly finding the heart of a a song. She fares less well on songs that require a high belt, forcing her voice into uncomfortable areas. That said, however, her new disc offers many highlights, including “Springtime,” a heartbreaking song from the Vilna Ghetto; a lovely version of Show Boat’s Bill; and a terrific medley of three Follies tunes: “The Road You Didn’t Take,” “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Too Many Mornings.”

The complete track listing for "Maria Friedman Live" follows:
"Move On"
"Tom's Diner"
"The Way He Makes Me Feel"
"Short People"
"Twisted"
"That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be"
"Play That Song Again"
"In Germany Before the War"
"To a Portable Radio"
"Song of a German Mother"
"In the Sky"
"Springtime"
"There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York"
"Bill"
"Irving"
"The Road You Didn't Take"/"In Buddy's Eyes"/"Too Many Mornings"
I Can Cook Too"
I Happen to Like New York"
The Way You Look Tonight"

IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK Eliza Lumley, who portrays the silent secretary in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, will make her New York cabaret debut this month. On May 30 and 31, Lumley will finally get the chance to make herself heard when she performs She Talks in Maths, an exploration of love and loss through song. Cabaretgoers can expect to hear tunes by Kurt Weill, Marc Blitzstein, Rodgers and Hart, Ruth Wallis and the British rock band Radiohead. The May 30 performance will be held at Don't Tell Mama at 8:30 PM; the May 31 performance will be seen at Joe's Pub at 9 PM. Don't Tell Mama is located at 343 West 46th Street; call (212) 757-0788 for reservations. Joe's Pub is located within the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street; call (212) 539-8770. . . . The Broadway Close-Up Series continues May 10 with a salute to composer Charles Strouse. Among the stars who will be interpreting the songs of the Tony-winning composer are Tom Andersen, Ann Crumb, Jerry Dixon, Laura Marie Duncan, Penny Fuller, Anita Gillette, Maree Johnson, Eddie Korbich, Jeff Loeffelholz, Nora Mae Lyng, Ann Morrison, Anne Torcellieri and Rachel York. The Broadway Kids will also take part in the 8 PM at the Merkin Concert Hall. Celebrating the Music of Charles Strouse will feature direction by John Znidarsic with musical direction by Richard Danley. Concertgoers can expect to hear tunes from All American, Annie, Annie Warbucks, Golden Boy, Marty, Nick and Nora, Dance a Little Closer, Applause and Bye Bye Birdie. Tickets for the Strouse evening are priced at $25 and are available by calling (212) 501-3330. Merkin Concert Hall is located between Broadway and Amsterdam at 129 West 67th Street. . . . Six additional leading ladies of the musical theatre have been added to the upcoming evening devoted to the songs of Michael John LaChiusa, The Girly Show. On the Town's Lea DeLaria, Jekyll & Hyde's Luba Mason, Gypsy's Maureen Moore, Urinetown's Jennifer Laura Thompson, Cabaret's Kate Shindle and Falsettos' Barbara Walsh will join the previously announced Carolee Carmello, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Julia Murney, Sally Murphy, Michele Pawk, Alice Playten and Mary Testa for the May 17 concerts at Lincoln Center. Part of Lincoln Center's acclaimed American Songbook series, two concerts will be offered, at 8 and 10 PM. Featuring LaChiusa at the piano, the concerts will include songs from several of the composer's musicals, including First Lady Suite, Hello Again, Marie Christine, The Wild Party, Little Fish and Lovers and Friends. Tickets are priced $45 (8 PM) and $30 (10 PM) and are available by calling (212) 751-6500 or by visiting www.lincolncenter.org. The concerts will be held in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse in the Rose Building at 165 West 65th Street, 10th floor. Visit www.lincolncenter.org for more information. . . . An all-star gala saluting the 92nd Street Y's 13 decades will be held at the famed New York institution May 24. 130 Years On Stage at the 92nd Street Y will include music, dance, readings and reminiscences and a few surprise guests. Music will be performed by Sutton Foster, Hunter Foster, Judy Kaye, Mimi Hines, Dick Hyman and his Jazz in July All-Stars and the Tokyo String Quartet. Martha Graham Dance Company and Fresh Y Crew, the Y's jazz/hip-hop troupe, will dance, and readings and reminiscences will be offered by Susan Stroman, Tony Curtis and Jonathan Schwartz. Jeffrey Martin and John Kroner will direct the show — penned by Russell Reich — with musical direction and orchestrations by Lanny Meyers. Aleks Rosenberg has designed projection sequences for the gala. The gala evening begins at 6 PM with cocktails and dinner, followed by the 8 PM entertainment. A 9:30 PM dessert reception will conclude the festivities. Tickets are priced $500 (show and dessert reception) and $1,000 (cocktails, dinner, show, dessert). Call (212) 415-5488 for reservations. The 92nd Street Y is located in Manhattan at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street. Visit www.92Y.org for more information.

REMINDERS

Liz Callaway in Concert:

May 8 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY

Patti LuPone in Concert:

Through May 8 in Candide with the NY Philharmonic in New York, NY
May 18-30 at the Plush Room in San Francisco, CA

Louise Pitre in Concert:

November 4 at the Brock Centre for the Arts in St. Catherines, ON
November 5 at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts in Oakville, ON
November 6 at the Dr. J.M. Ennis Auditorium in Welland, ON
November 11 at the Heritage Theatre in Brampton, ON
November 12 at the Imperial Oil Centre in Sarnia, ON
November 17 at the Markham Theatre in Markham, ON
November 20 at the Stockey Centre in Parry Sound, ON
November 21 at The Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, ON


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