DIVA TALK: The Best of 2008

By Andrew Gans
December 26, 2008

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

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Hello, diva lovers! This week's column offers a backwards glance at the year that comes to a close next week. 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 2009.

THE 11 BEST OF 2008 (in alphabetical order):

LAURA BENANTI
I've long been an admirer of the many talents of Laura Benanti her Cinderella in the Into the Woods revival, her gloriously sung Lily in the concert version of The Secret Garden remain theatrical standouts so I was thrilled that the singing actress was finally rewarded with a Tony for her performance as Gypsy in the current revival of the classic Arthur Laurents-Stephen Sondheim-Jule Styne musical of the same name. As wonderful as she was during the show's limited engagement at City Center, Benanti's performance even deepened for Broadway. She was appropriately self-conscious and awkward as Louise in the musical's first act, delivering what may be the definitive version of "Little Lamb" who knew that song could be so affecting? and she was physically stunning and self-assured as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in the show's second act. And, her showdown with co-star Patti LuPone prior to "Rose's Turn" was breathtaking.

Haydn Gwynne in Billy Elliot.
photo by David Scheinmann
Billy Elliot The Musical
Fans of the film "Billy Elliot" this writer included have been waiting several years for the musical version of the acclaimed motion picture to make its way across the Atlantic. Whatever small complaints one might have, there is no denying the sheer emotion that overtakes the audience at the Imperial Theatre as the young Billy figuratively and literally flies across the stage. The top-notch cast is led by Haydn Gwynne, who as dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, opens a world of possibilities for Billy Elliot; Carole Shelley, who offers touching and comical moments as Billy's dotty grandmother; Greg Jbara, who is equally moving as Billy's dad; and Kiril Kulish, the Billy I saw, who had me in tears with both every time he danced or spoke of his late "mum."

Betty Buckley
BETTY BUCKLEY
Whenever Betty Buckley sings, it's time for a celebration, for few can match the emotional intensity and lyrical acuity she brings to songs that span the worlds of country, rock, pop, folk, jazz and Broadway. And, her recent debut at the famed jazz club Birdland was no exception. Buckley said that she poured through her voluminous music collection to choose some of the most beautiful songs she knew for her Birdland bow. And, what a beautiful repertoire it was: From the atmospheric "Autumn Leaves" to the heartbreaking songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Buckley offered an evening of beautiful tunes that were also beautifully acted. One of the most haunting songs of the evening was a new addition to the Tony winner's eclectic repertoire, "Ghost in This House," which was as emotionally powerful as it was gorgeously delivered: Buckley's soprano tones were at their most lovely on this supremely moving selection. And, it should be noted, Buckley's rangy alto remains a formidable instrument. Especially exciting were full-voiced renditions of "Since I Fell for You" and the Bob Dylan anthem "The Times They Are A Changin'." Other highlights of the generous set included a wonderful pairing of Jobim's "Dindi" and "How Insensitive" that had the sold-out crowd completely absorbed in Buckley's sensitive readings; a belty version of the Gershwin classic, "They Can't Take That Away From Me"; and a superb take on the pop hit "Get Here," which concluded Buckley's evening. Tom Waits' "Take It With Me When I Go," Buckley's encore, was another standout. Those who missed Buckley's fall engagement, fear not. The multitalented actress will bring her acclaimed By Request evening directed by Richard Jay-Alexander and featuring Seth Rudetsky at the piano back to Feinstein's at Loews Regency in February 2009.

Patti LuPone in Gypsy
photo by Joan Marcus
PATTI LuPONE
There was no denying this was the year of Patti LuPone. Who would have thought after the unnecessary drama of Sunset Boulevard she was Olivier-nominated for her work in London and the musical never recouped on Broadway anyway that LuPone's best work lay ahead of her? In taking on the mammoth role of Rose in the classic musical Gypsy, LuPone reclaimed her status as one of the major forces of the American musical theatre. It was (and is through Jan. 11, 2009) a monumental performance as thrillingly sung as it is emotionally powerful and nuanced. Especially riveting are LuPone's performances of the showstoppers that close each act: the shocking "Everything's Coming Up Roses" at the end of the first, and the breakdown-in-song "Rose's Turn" that concludes the second. In the latter, LuPone doesn't let the emotion of one syllable pass her by: Her "Rose's Turn" is humorous, moving, shocking, horrifying and just plain thrilling. It was a performance that not only garnered her a long-in-coming second Tony Award but also a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award and the Drama League's Distinguished Performance Award. And, if Gypsy weren't enough, we were also treated to "Patti LuPone at Les Mouches," a live recording of LuPone's acclaimed 1980 performance at the now-closed Manhattan nightclub Les Mouches. The high-voltage act, available from Ghostlight Records, is an exhilarating mix of show tunes, standards, pop hits and disco tunes and features a young, golden-voiced LuPone thrillingly belting out showstopper after showstopper. Her enthusiasm is simply infectious, and one can't help ride the wave of positive emotion that LuPone delivers in song after song.

Maureen McGovern
photo by Gideon Lewin
MAUREEN McGOVERN
What's most enjoyable about watching an artist perform throughout the years is that rare occasion when one is surprised by a performance and thrilled anew at that artist's talent. Such was the case this past season when Maureen McGovern made her Metropolitan Room debut with her newest concert act, The Long and Winding Road, which was subsequently released on the PS Classics label. Directed by Philip Himberg with musical direction by Jeff Harris, the evening featured an eclectic mix of tunes from such celebrated sixties singer-songwriters as Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Webb, Paul Simon, Carole King, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Laura Nyro. McGovern seemed to connect with this material on all levels, and she was more at ease with her audience than I had ever seen her. She was funny, charming and that rangy, clear-as-a-bell voice seemed as powerful, if not more so, than ever. I particularly enjoyed her a cappella rendition of "Where the Boys Are," her simple, slowed-down and touching version of "The Circle Game," her terrific, comical take on "Rocky Raccoon" and a thrilling "And When I Die."

Liza Minnelli
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
KELLI O'HARA
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
MARTHA PLIMPTON
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
FAITH PRINCE
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
ALICE RIPLEY
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.