DIVA TALK: The Best of 2013

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27 Dec 2013

Fantasia Barrino
Fantasia Barrino
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Hello, diva lovers! This week's column offers a backward glance at the year that will soon come to an end. This year's "best of" list includes favorite musicals and/or musical performances on the theatrical and concert stages in Manhattan. 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 2014.

THE BEST OF 2013 (in alphabetical order)

Fantasia Barrino in After Midnight
Loyal watchers of "American Idol" know that Fantasia Barrino was a rarity among the show's competitors – a singer who connected deeply to her lyrics; in fact, her teary-eyed rendition of “Summertime” remains one of the standout performances in the history of the FOX TV competition. In the new, critically acclaimed revue After Midnight at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, Barrino similarly shines, delivering each of her four numbers superbly: a zesty “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” a passionate but restrained "Stormy Weather," a show-stopping “Zaz Zuh Zaz” and a joyful “Sunny Side of the Street.” I left the theatre hoping Barrino will someday treat us to an entire concert of standards and showtunes.

Betty Buckley in Signature Songs
If Betty Buckley was looking for a new concert act to tour the country, she need look no further. Betty Buckley: Signature Songs, which the Tony-winning actress presented Sept. 30 to a sold-out crowd at Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre, was a perfect evening of song and story. The Texas native needn't change a thing: not one word, sung or spoken. Read the complete review here.

Rachel Bay Jones
photo by Joan Marcus

Rachel Bay Jones in Pippin
Simply put, Rachel Bay Jones’ performance in the Tony-winning revival of Pippin is the kind that keeps me a fan of the musical theatre. There is not one dishonest moment in her entire performance as Catherine, Pippin’s second-act love interest. Jones is quirky, funny, charming, disarmingly real and wholly touching. My only complaint: I wish she had the chance to deliver all of “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” – the verse she does get to sing is one of the gems of this thrilling revival. PS: I had the chance to recently revisit the Diane Paulus-directed production, and Jones was even more sublime the second time.

Judy Kuhn
How great it was to have Judy Kuhn back this season in not one, but two terrific productions: Classic Stage Company’s revival of Passion and the Public Theater’s staging of the new Jeanine Tesori-Lisa Kron musical Fun Home, a coming-of-age story concerning a young girl who realizes both she and her father are gay. Kuhn brought dimension and her rich, throbbing tones to the role of the ill-fated Fosca, and in Fun Home she was equally compelling, delivering the evening's most melodic tune, “Days and Days and Days,” with such honesty; in fact, when she tells her daughter Alison to not waste her days as she did, it may have been the musical's most moving moment.

Patti LuPone
Photo by Ethan Hill

Patti LuPone at Carnegie Hall
In November Patti LuPone offered a two-act version of Far Away Places to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. Anyone who caught LuPone’s one-act version of the show when it premiered at 54 Below knows it’s a thrilling journey featuring knock-out renditions of “Bilbao Song,” "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking," “Pirate Jenny” and “Hymn to Love.” Among the additions to the Carnegie Hall evening were “Just a Gigolo,” Billy Joel’s “Vienna,” a roof-raising “Buenos Aires” and a lively duet with Bridget Everett on “Me and Bobby McGee.” As terrific as the show was, the encores were even more extraordinary: gorgeously belted versions of “With One Look” (even more beautiful 20 years after I watched LuPone’s heartbreaking performance in the London world premiere of Sunset Boulevard), “Meadowlark” (as riveting as ever), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’s “Invisible” (a welcome addition to LuPone’s eclectic repertoire) and Kurt Weill's haunting "September Song." Following numerous standing ovations, the Tony and Oliver winner concluded the evening singing “The Melody Lingers On” a cappella. A perfect end to a perfect night.

Andrea Martin in Pippin
Without a doubt the most surprising and joyous moment of the year in the theatre was delivered by the comedic genius that is Andrea Martin in the Tony-winning revival of Pippin at the Music Box Theatre. Her humorous and touching rendition of Stephen Schwartz’s “No Time At All,” combined with her high-flying, shocking trapeze routine, was so thrilling that the audience leapt to its feet en masse. Twenty years ago Martin’s double takes and comic shenanigans so impressed in the short-lived My Favorite Year that she was also Tony-honored for her work. I will never forget either performance.

Judy McLane
photo by Joan Marcus

Judy McLane in Mamma Mia!
Over the past decade I’ve had the pleasure of catching several thrilling actresses in the role of single mom Donna Sheridan in the international hit Mamma Mia!, but none may have been as perfectly cast as Broadway’s current leading lady, Judy McLane. In McLane the musical has finally found the perfect vocal fit. McLane’s singing embodies everything that was exciting about 70’s pop; in fact, she has the smoothness of Karen Carpenter but with a bigger Broadway sound. It’s a top-notch cast overall, with especially strong performances from the trio of possible fathers: Aaron Lazar, Daniel Cooney and Graham Rowat. But it is McLane’s powerhouse rendition of “The Winner Takes It All” that will ring in your ears post-curtain.

Elaine Paige at Town Hall
Following evenings in Atlantic City and Jazz at Lincoln Center, Town Hall marked the third time I’ve seen Elaine Paige’s career-based concert evening. That I was still awed by the British actress’ vocal prowess and her focused intensity says a lot about the many talents of the woman who created leading roles in the London premieres of Evita, Cats and Chess, drew equal acclaim for her work in Piaf, Anything Goes, The King and I and Sunset Boulevard and wowed New York audiences with her performances in Boulevard, Sweeney Todd and, most recently, the starry revival of Follies. When Paige’s voice opens in full glory in “As If We Never Said Goodbye” or “If You Love Me,” one can only sit back and let that rich, lush sound wash over you. The evening featured one song I’ve never heard Paige perform live, Noel Coward’s “Mad About the Boy,” which was stunningly delivered by the actress as three distinct women, all besotted with the same leading man. A tour de force in song.

Bernadette Peters
Photo by Joan Marcus

Bernadette Peters in A Bed and Chair
After her haunting performance as the heartbroken, emotionally shattered Sally Durant Plummer in the recent revival of Follies, it was exciting to have “fun” Bernadette back on the New York stage, drawing laughs with a knowing glance or chasing a spotlight in a thrilling, belty version of “Broadway Baby.” Peters also shone in more serious moments, including a touching “Like It Was” and a sensational “Ladies Who Lunch” that the three-time Tony winner built to an exciting climax. A Bed and A Chair: A New York Love Affair, it should be noted, marked Peters’ seventh collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, following her Broadway outings in Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, Gypsy, A Little Night Music and the aforementioned Follies as well as the Carnegie Hall mounting of Anyone Can Whistle. Has anyone in musical theatre history been so beautifully paired with one composer’s work as Peters?

Chita Rivera in A Legendary Celebration
For those who worried Chita Rivera's lights might have dimmed now that she is an octogenarian, fear not. The Tony-winning triple threat proved in a stunning 90-minute concert Oct. 7 that her talents are as numerous and powerful as ever. In fact, Rivera was in prime form, singing, acting, dancing, joking and simply strutting around the stage like no one since… Chita Rivera! Directed by Graciela Daniele and written by Terrence McNally, the evening featured highlights from Rivera's award-winning career with just enough patter to illuminate the songs that followed. The evening's vocal high point was a thrilling, haunting rendition of Jacques Brel's "Carousel." The way Rivera breathed into each and every lyric brought beauty to her vocals, and the use of her voice, hands and arms — combined with the wonderful musical arrangement by Mark Hummel and orchestration by Lynne Shankel as well as Jeff Croiter's lighting — created a perfect, theatrical and highly moving moment. Although this writer has had the pleasure of catching Rivera on Broadway in Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Dancer's Life, Nine and, most recently, in the revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, this evening was somehow even more remarkable, one of those magical nights in the theatre. It was also abundantly clear that the gifted performer is loved not only by her legion of fans, but also by the theatre community, who were among those reveling in this night to remember.

Jennifer Simard in Disaster!
One of the funniest performances in recent memory is currently being given by Jennifer Simard, who plays a nun with a bad habit (sorry!) in Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick’s Off-Broadway comic delight, Disaster!, at the St. Luke's Theatre. Whether she’s almost-inaudibly singing “The Lord’s Prayer,” demonstrating why she’s “Torn Between Two Lovers,” belting “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” or strumming her guitar with abandon, Simard finds every possible comedic moment and some you wouldn’t even have thought possible. Mary Testa, who plays Brooklyn-born Shirley Summers, is also hilarious, especially in an eye-blinking, pelvis-thrusting scene that leads to Tourette's-like outbursts. Also, keep an eye out for the young Matt Farcher, who boasts a beautiful, versatile tenor.

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

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Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.