Hello, diva lovers! This week's column offers a backward glance at the year that comes to a close in two weeks. 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 2011.
THE BEST OF 2010 (in alphabetical order):
It took an on-line contest to come up with a title for Tony winner Betty Buckley's month-long engagement at Feinstein's at Loews Regency in February, but it was pure Texan talent that made For the Love of Broadway! so extraordinary. Performing a set of Broadway tunes new to her repertoire, the singing actress, whose wealth of emotion ripples through her silvery vibrato more potently than ever, proved once again just how remarkable any song can be once it is in her hands. In fact, her rendition of Jacques Brel's "If You Go Away" was a master class in the art of interpreting a song. Other highlights included the little-heard Maltby-Shire gem "I've Been Here Before" and the Avenue Q first-act finale, "It's a Fine, Fine Line." Buckley, who also had fun with John McDaniel and Eric Kornfeld's comedic "When I Belt," then managed to offer a completely different, but equally emotionally transporting evening of song at Manhattan's Town Hall — featuring selections from her new CD, "Bootleg: Boardmixes from the Road"— in October.
I've long been a fan of Liz Callaway, whose magnificent, rounded tones remain unaffected by time, but it wasn't until this year's Town Hall concert when I realized just how remarkable a performer her sister, Ann Hampton Callaway, can be. (The evening, which the sisters are currently touring around the country, is titled Boom! and celebrates the soundtrack of their childhood.) In the past few years Ann has grown to become one of the greatest song interpreters around. She built her gospel-tinged rendition of "Blowin' in the Wind" to a stunning intensity, and her readings of "You've Lost That Loving Feelin'," "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" and "A Case of You" were equally entrancing. Liz's star also shone brightly with wonderful renditions of "Didn't We?," "Downtown" and more.
This past Saturday I received the greatest holiday present of the year, the new DVD "Nancy LaMott: The Don't Tell Mama Shows," four cabaret acts that were filmed between April 1986 and May 1988. Released 15 years after LaMott's untimely death at the age of 43, the recordings demonstrate how the gifted singer honed her skills as an artist prior to her breakthrough in the early '90s with her first solo recording, "Beautiful Baby," which led to sold-out cabaret engagements at the finest rooms and numerous national television appearances. LaMott was already a terrific singer by the time of the first of these cabaret acts, but it's quite remarkable to watch how much she changed from the first of these four recordings to the last. By the time of the May 1988 act, which features a mostly Irving Berlin repertoire and direction by Bruce Hopkins, LaMott's transformation to the polished artist most remember was nearly complete. While watching these four one-hour shows, I was again struck by the beauty of her sound and how LaMott used her voice like a musical instrument: The colors and shadings are simply breathtaking. The purity of her tone in Robert I and Marc Shaiman's "I Saw God" and Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" is astounding. I was also reminded how LaMott, more than any other singer who comes to mind, was able to make a standard sound completely contemporary; conversely, she could also make a pop song sound like it was written by the Gershwins. For LaMott fans new and old, this treasured collection is a must.
|photo by Ethan Hill|
Okay, so it's not Gypsy, but what is? LuPone's latest Broadway outing, the new musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, based on the Pedro Almodovar film of the same name, casts the two-time Tony winner as Lucia, ex-wife of Ivan, the cad played by fellow Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell. Not only does LuPone get to dazzle in some wonderfully inventive costumes created by Catherine Zuber, she once again proves that she can shine not only when she is the star of a show, but also in an ensemble piece. Her riveting delivery of her second-act show stopper, "Invisible," was as moving as it was thrillingly sung, and her gift for comedy is one of the major selling points of the production, whether it's a facial expression, a gesture or a supremely humorous line reading. The production also benefits from the work of LuPone's Gypsy co-star, Laura Benanti, who is a riot as the ditzy model Candela.
|photo by M. Sharkey Photography|
Okay, I have to admit, when it was first announced that Marin Mazzie would succeed Alice Ripley in the emotionally demanding role of Diana Goodman in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal, I thought it was a mismatch of actor and role. Although Mazzie is a three-time Tony nominee — her beautifully layered performance as Mother in the original staging of Ragtime was the anchor of that production — none of those past roles required her to delve into her psyche like the bipolar mom in Normal. Yet, I should not have questioned her suitability for the part: Like her predecessor in the role, Mazzie is offering the performance of her career, a brilliantly acted and wonderfully sung turn that is supremely moving.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
When attending a piece of theatre starring Donna Murphy, one can usually expect to enjoy one of the best performances of the year because, as one of the most daring performers around, she does nothing half-hearted. Such was the case this past season when Murphy joined forces with fellow Tony winner Sutton Foster for the City Center Encores! production of Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents' Anyone Can Whistle, which cast the two-time Tony winner as Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper. Murphy's zany, comedic and powerful performance was so impressive that one left the theatre wondering what can't this actress do on stage.
It may have taken me a quarter of a century to finally have the opportunity to see Elaine Paige in a full solo concert, but unlike so many things in life, it was more than worth the proverbial wait: Paige, who made her long-awaited Broadway debut in Sunset Boulevard, offered a thrillingly emotion-filled evening at The Borgata's Music Box Theater in Atlantic City this past September. Proving that good things do indeed come in "Small Packages" — the title of a novelty song penned for the original star of Evita, Cats and Chess by Mary Poppins' George Stiles and Anthony Drewe that Paige sang with relish — the singing actress so wowed the New Jersey audience that they rewarded the British talent with no less than four standing ovations. (I believe I finally lost count.) What's noteworthy is not that such a powerful voice comes from the rather diminutive Paige, but that such power could come from any singer. When the award-winning artist opens up her belt in such tunes as "As If We Never Said Goodbye" or "If You Love Me," the sound flows from Paige in what can only be described as a volcanic eruption. But it's not only the power, it's the gorgeous tone and the beautiful, rippling vibrato that make the experience such a joy to the senses. When you add her innate lyrical interpretive sensibilities as well as her acting skills, it is no wonder why no one has been able to topple her position as The Leading Lady of the British Musical Theatre.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
I am as big a Stephen Sondheim fan as anyone, but if asked which of his classic tunes I thought I never needed to hear again, it would have to have been "Send in the Clowns." That is, until I heard Bernadette Peters' version in the current revival of A Little Night Music. Peters pours her heart and soul into a teary-eyed rendition that entrances audiences, and she somehow manages to make the song completely and startlingly fresh. Her compelling, poignant and touching performance weaves a spell over the audience until their complete silence — rapt by Peters' monologue-in-song — erupts into thunderous applause. Peters also manages to bring much comedy to the role of the aging actress Desiree Armfeldt: In fact, with the aid of her co-star, Tony and Emmy winner Elaine Stritch, the duo transformed the Tony-winning revival into one of the most enjoyable productions on Broadway.
|photo by Carol Rosegg|
Scott is currently back on Broadway in the aforementioned Women on the Verge, but it was her performance in Everyday Rapture, which she co-wrote with Dick Scanlan, that impressed this diva lover so thoroughly. Scott was nominated for two 2010 Tony Awards for her mostly solo musical journey, Best Book of a Musical (with Scanlan) and Best Performance By a Leading Actress in a Musical, and both nominations were completely deserved, for Scott offered a performance that was hilariously funny, deeply touching and ultimately spirit-raising. SONDHEIM! THE BIRTHDAY CONCERT
Although I wasn't able to attend the March concerts featuring the New York Philharmonic, I have enjoyed the DVD of Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday celebration numerous times. In addition to the performances by many of the very best of the musical theatre, the evening also offers two especially exciting staged moments: the arrival of the stars of the evening, who enter via the onstage orchestra as "party guests," and the introduction of what can only be called the "diva segment." In the latter, David Hyde Pierce sings the Follies anthem "Beautiful Girls" while Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy, Marin Mazzie and Elaine Stritch enter the stage dressed to the nines in all-red outfits. It was almost as much fun to watch each of these women watch her colleagues perform as it was to watch the individual performances themselves. It's another must-have DVD.
Well, that's all for now. Wishing you happy holidays, a happy New Year and, of course, happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected]