DIVA TALK: The Best of 2008

By Andrew Gans
26 Dec 2008

Liza Minnelli
Something magical happened toward the end of the opening-night performance of Liza's at the Palace. . ., the limited engagement now playing Broadway's Palace Theatre. After performing a demanding, often exciting two-hour program of classic Liza Minnelli tunes and less-known Kay Thompson songs (and touching stories), the Oscar and Tony-winning triple threat began singing one of her signatures, "Theme from 'New York New York.'" Although she had already belted out "Maybe This Time," "Cabaret" and "Mammy," there was something different in this offering. Minnelli somehow captured the youthfulness of her early work but added the wealth of emotion and know-how that years in the business have brought, and belted out what could only be described as a thrilling, roof-raising version of the Kander and Ebb classic. By the time she got to the song's key change, the audience was on its feet in full amazement of what they had witnessed. In fact, the sold-out crowd remained standing for several minutes until Minnelli returned with a heartfelt "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" that simply melted into a section of the standard "I'll Be Seeing You."

Kelli O'Hara in South Pacific.
photo by Joan Marcus
Ever since she played the childlike Clara in Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' award-winning The Light in the Piazza, three-time Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara has been on a roll, delivering winning performance after winning performance. I was especially fond of her gutsy Babe in the Harry Connick, Jr. revival of The Pajama Game her duet with Connick on "There Once Was a Man" was just one memorable highlight and she is currently offering her finest, most nuanced performance to date in the terrific revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. O'Hara manages to be simultaneously girlish and womanly and tough and tender, and makes a terrific journey from the prejudiced Nellie Forbush to the eventually open-minded wife-to-be of Emile de Becque. She also possesses one of the great sopranos of the musical theatre and delivers top-notch renditions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "A Cockeyed Optimist," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" and "A Wonderful Guy."

Martha Plimpton in Pal Joey.
photo by Joan Marcus
Who knew Martha Plimpton could sing? And sing so well? And vamp? And deliver one-liners with dead-on comic timing? Watching Plimpton portray Gladys Bumps, the been-through-the-mill nightclub performer in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Pal Joey, one would think this was Plimpton's umpteenth Broadway musical rather than her first. Her work in the second-act blackmail scene with co-stars Stockard Channing, Matthew Risch and Robert Clohessy is especially powerful. In fact, it's hard to take one's eyes off of Plimpton, for the character she has created is so multi-layered she is hardened yet so in awe of the posh surroundings. One can't help feel sorry for her Bumps, who has been mistreated by Joey both before and after the action of the musical begins. Truly, there's not one forced moment in her entire performance, and it's exciting to think what musical roles now await the actress who was previously Tony-nominated for her dramatic work in The Coast of Utopia and Top Girls.

Faith Prince in A Catered Affair.
photo by Jim Cox
Although the production was short-lived, Guys and Dolls Tony Award winner Faith Prince offered what might have been her most powerful stage performance to date. Cast as a severely unhappy 1950s Bronx housewife who pins her hopes on a lavish wedding ceremony for her daughter (played by Leslie Kritzer), Prince was sarcastic, comedic and supremely moving in Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino's A Catered Affair. One of the most affecting moments in the show featured Prince, alone on stage, letting out a life's worth of frustrations in a lengthy sob. It pierced the heart and reminded audiences how gifted a performer Prince is.

Alice Ripley in Next to Normal.
photo by Joan Marcus
As one of the many who have enjoyed watching Alice Ripley become a leading player in the New York musical theatre scene, it was especially gratifying to watch the gifted singing actress whose Broadway resume includes Side Show, Sunset Boulevard, Les Miserables, The Who's Tommy and James Joyce's The Dead in Off-Broadway's Next to Normal, where she offered her most stunning performance to date. In fact, the Tom Kitt (music)-Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) musical was easily the most moving musical production of the season, and Ripley's work as the manic-depressive Diana a performance that spanned the spectrum of emotions was just one of the reasons why this work deserves a longer life. Ripley's New York co-stars Brian d'Arcy James, now on Broadway in Shrek, and Aaron Tveit, who has rejoined Ripley for Arena Stage's current production of Next to Normal were also terrific.

The [tos] cast
photo by Carol Rosegg
[title of show]
One of the most exciting and touching moments of the theatre season was watching the cast of [title of show] the four-person musical that began life Off-Broadway and via youtube, loyal fans and devoted producers found its way to Broadway sing the show's penultimate number, "Nine People's Favorite Thing." The 90 minutes that preceded this song were tuneful, often hilarious and, at times, moving, but somehow all of those elements combined to a swell of emotion in this song that explains why Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell created the show, and why the equally talented Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell came along for the wonderful ride. [title of show] may not have run a decade on Broadway, but who knows how many "vampires" it killed: How many long-forgotten novels have been taken out of desk drawers or how many new musicals are now in the works? And, it also introduced Broadway theatregoers to a mighty talented foursome.

HONORABLE MENTIONS to Sutton Foster, who provides one of the highlights of Shrek the Musical during the second-act opener, "Morning Person," and remains perhaps the leading comedic musical theatre actress of her generation. . . . Mandy Gonzalez and Karen Olivo, who offered some of the most thrilling vocals of the season in the dazzling, Tony-winning In the Heights. . . . Gay Marshall, who performed a wonderful tribute to Edith Piaf at the Metropolitan Room and has since released those songs on CD . . . and the cast of 13, who assured audiences that the next generation of musical theatre performers are no less talented than their predecessors.

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.