How Kristin Chenoweth Embraced Tuptim, Marian, Rosabella, Flora, Johanna, Dolly and Other Dames
By Steven Suskin
For her American Songbook concert at the Allen Room in Manhattan, a show recorded for later broadcast, Kristin Chenoweth embraced some of the greatest characters and songs of the musical theatre. Playbill was there.
Kristin Chenoweth returned to Broadway, or at least where Broadway meets Columbus Circle, Feb. 15 with her new act, The Dames of Broadway... All of 'Em!!! Accompanied by Mary-Mitchell Campbell at the piano, this American Songbook concert gave musical theatre fans — packed into the Allen Room at Time Warner Center for two performances — Chenoweth in a sampler of no less than 16 musical comedy roles.
Chenoweth began her career in theatre before being wafted off to TV land, and The Dames of Broadway was an evening of roles she should have played, could have played, and in some cases did play (though not in New York). These included at least two that she confessed she still wants to play: Annie — the one with the rifle — and Dolly. In canvassing for potential producers, she cited the Shuberts ("they've closed every show I've ever done!") and made a dig at the team behind Rebecca ("get those boys out of jail!").
The evening, written and directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, started off in fine manner. The star came out in a blue cloth coat with a little blue valise, like Mary Tyler Moore in Minneapolis. She then unpacked her bag, removing her "props." (These included, most prominently, her Tony Award, which she set twirling on its pedestal on the piano. "I just love that thing," she beamed.) Explaining that when she came to town she was suited for both romantic leading ladies and their comedic best friend sidekicks, she started with a seven-minute slice of the waitress scene from Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella (culminating with "Somebody Somewhere") — playing both roles simultaneously.
"Mister Snow" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" set the pattern for the rest, ranging from Wonderful Town's Ruth Sherwood (with "One Hundred Easy Ways") to Funny Girl's Fanny Brice (with "Who Are You Now?"). At the same time, she tested her pipes with a bravura rendition of Sondheim's "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" from Sweeney Todd. Chenoweth offered a bit of esoterica with the extended pre-Broadway version of "My White Knight" from The Music Man, noting that Barbara Cook gave her the music and suggested she sing it.
The star hit her peak in the latter part of the program, starting with a bluesy rendition of "Moonshine Lullaby" accompanied by four tuxedoed boys. (They slinked on for the one number and some humorous patter before being dismissed with "hey, get off!") She then went into her finest number, Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' "Old Maid" from 110 in the Shade. This was one of the few songs which Chenoweth acted in character —as opposed to performing as Kristin — and it was searing. The entire concert cried out for an orchestra, but made do with the adept Campbell (supplemented on half the songs by bass and drums).
High entertainment spots came with glimpses at two roles she tells us she shouldn't have done. The perky Oklahoman explains how she came to perform Tuptim in The King and I, with dyed hair and severe makeup. (In order to feel more comfortable, she insisted that cast members call her "Christy Chen." Farfetched, but Mom and Pop Chenoweth — sitting in the fifth row — confirmed this.) An unlikely Tuptim, yes, but her "My Lord and Master" was compelling. She then described how she played Val in a Christian production of A Chorus Line, offering as proof her rendition of "Dance, 10; Looks, 3," with lyrics altered to "Boobs and Butt."
Chenoweth's encore came with the only "male" song of the evening, a tender and heartfelt rendition of "Edelweiss." An edited version of the 70-minute American Songbook concert is scheduled for a March 24 broadcast by PBS on "Live From Lincoln Center."
Here' the songlist from the evening:
(When I Marry) Mister Snow
Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man
A Quiet Thing
My Funny Valentine
One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man
My White Knight
Little Girl Blue
Green Finch and Linnet Bird
Who Are You Now?
My Lord and Master
Dance: Ten; Looks: Three
Before the Parade Passes By
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