DIVA TALK: The Best of 2011

News   DIVA TALK: The Best of 2011
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Andrea Marcovicci
Andrea Marcovicci Photo by Daniel Reichert

Hello, diva lovers! This week's column offers a backward glance at the year that comes to a close this weekend. This year's "best of" list includes favorite musicals and/or musical performances on the theatrical and concert stages in and out of 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 2012.

THE BEST OF 2011 (in alphabetical order, by first name):

Site-specific theatre was all the rage this year — even Zoe Caldwell was doing it — but cabaret favorite Andrea Marcovicci didn't need to literally invite audiences into her apartment to make them feel like they were in her living room. She simply sang, acted, charmed and made one feel so welcome, so a part of her expertly crafted evening, No Strings at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room, that audiences left feeling they had attended an elegant holiday party. Marcovicci has always skillfully built her cabaret evenings, but as the years have passed, she has become equally adept at making each and every person in the audience feel a special part of the show, whether she's singing directly to you while walking throughout the intimate room, talking to audience members from the mini stage or triumphantly clinking her glass against yours during her encore. And, her newest show had everything this diva lover looks for in a cabaret performance: a few gems I know and love (a touching "Two for the Road" and a beguiling "These Foolish Things"), a couple tunes that were new to me ("Rainy Night in Rio," "The Night I Fell in Love With Paris"), several songs that made me laugh out loud ("When Yuba Plays the Rhumba On the Tuba," "I Don't Know"), terrific patter and a few insights into the gifted chanteuse's own life. Marcovicci is currently celebrating her 25th season at the famed Manhattan venue. Here's to 25 more!

Bernadette Peters in Follies.
photo by Joan Marcus

With so many breathtaking performances, I could have easily devoted this entire column to the women who are earning standing ovations each night in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies, which began its life this past summer at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The performance that is most burned in my mind belongs to two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters, whose emotionally raw work builds from a hauntingly moving "In Buddy's Eyes" through a soaring "Too Many Mornings" and climaxes in what may be the definitive version of the torchy "Losing My Mind." In less than three hours, Peters' Sally experiences the gamut of human emotions: She is coy, flirtatious and simultaneously self-conscious when she first encounters Ben, in a state of self-denial mingled with despair as she sings of "Buddy's Eyes," blissfully but blindly happy as she recalls "Too Many Mornings," heartbroken when she realizes the love of her life has let her down once again, and completely shattered by the end of the Follies reunion. In fact, I will long remember Peters' anguished expression as she prepares to leave the dilapidated theatre at night's end.... If that weren't enough, the production also boasts Jan Maxwell, who is never better than in a scorching "Could I Leave You?" that displays the anger and disillusionment that have been building in Phyllis for years. And, as for some of the other showstoppers, they include Jane Houdyshell, who offers a comic, delightful "Broadway Baby"; Mary Beth Peil, who brings new life to a song I never much noticed, "Ah, Paris"; the full-voiced Terri White, who leads several of the other gals in "Who's That Woman?," a tap number from their Follies days, to sensational effect; Rosalind Elias and Leah Horowitz, who duet on an ethereal and sweetly affecting "One More Kiss"; and Olivier winner Elaine Paige, who performs the survival anthem "I'm Still Here" with such intensity and exciting bursts of sheer vocal power she threatens to blow the roof off the theatre.

Betty Buckley
photo by Myriam Santos

In her 40-year Broadway career, Tony winner Betty Buckley has demonstrated time and again that she can play any female role in the musical theatre canon: Whether she is portraying the mother of a young girl with telekinetic powers, an aging glamour cat or a faded silent-screen star, she does so with her multitude of gifts as an actress and a singer. That mix of vocal prowess and deeply felt emotional availability was also on display this past fall in her new show at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, Ah Men! The Boys of Broadway, where Buckley proved that she would fare equally well at playing just about every major male role in the musical theatre. The Tony-winning Cats star, who has since recorded this repertoire, scored with tunes from Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, Pippin, South Pacific and La Cage aux Folles that were delivered with equal parts strength and tenderness. Highlights of the evening included a beautiful rendition of "Maria" from West Side Story; a touching reading of "Venice" from William Finn's Elegies that once again confirmed Buckley's superior skills as a singing actress and one of the great storytellers of her time; a rhythmic and belty version of the Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner standard "Come Back to Me"; a moving "Hey There," which featured a terrific arrangement by music director Christian Jacob; a suite of songs from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd — "Not While I'm Around," "Johanna" and "My Friends" — that Buckley built to a ferocious intensity; and an infectious version of the Pippin anthem, "Corner of the Sky." Another high point of the generous set was a humorous, extended medley, arranged by Eric Stern and Eric Kornfeld, that allowed the Olivier-nominated actress a chance to take on the leading male roles from Fiddler on the Roof, Les Miserables, Carousel, The Music Man and more, and she did so masterfully. More than anything, the evening let the gifted artist reminisce about the great movie musicals that influenced her as a youngster in Fort Worth, TX. Topping her list was the award-winning film of West Side Story, explaining she often performed the film's iconic opening in her family's driveway, only to have her dad jokingly exclaim, "Betty Lynn, the Jets are going to church now!" Buckley also described her admiration for the work of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire; in fact, when she needs a bit of motivation, Buckley admitted that she often watches clips of the late Astaire on YouTube. Funnily enough, when this writer needs some inspiration, he tends to view clips of Buckley on YouTube.

Greene in the film adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors.
Warner Bros.

When Ellen Greene sings, she does so with such raw intensity it's as though she is singing emotionally naked. There is no holding back for this great artist, so the idea of the Little Shop of Horrors star being part of a Christmas concert with the over 200-member Gay Men's Chorus of Washington was intriguing, especially considering Greene has spent a large part of the past decade traveling the world with her critically acclaimed evening of Torch!, which features heart-wrenching songs by an eclectic mixture of pop composers. Yet, Greene made the concerts with the delightful chorus — who are led by artistic director Jeff Buhrman and executive director David Jobin and who particularly shone in such upbeat numbers as "Go! Go! Rudy!" and Cy Coleman's "Favorite One" and in a lovely a cappella section of holiday favorites — work. Greene did offer a few Christmas standards (a vampy "Santa Baby" and a haunting "Silent Night," featuring the first verse in German), but it was her other choices, which represented the sentiments of the season, that soared: Annie Lennox's "Universal Child" and Gordon Lightfoot's "Song for Winter's Night." Greene, who was beautifully accompanied by musical director and pianist Christian Klikovits on piano and Grammy winner Stephen Erdody on cello, also treated the crowd to her two Little Shop signature tunes: "Somewhere That's Green," which she invested with such emotional honesty that the audience clung to every word, almost breathing along with her; and an equally powerful "Suddenly Seymour," which allowed the crowd to sing the role of Seymour opposite her beguiling, ageless Audrey.... Now, if we could only get her back to Broadway.

Florence Lacey
photo by Chris Mueller

Some of the most phenomenal artists of the musical theatre got the chance to strut their stuff during the original London, Broadway, Canadian and German productions of Sunset Boulevard, but there was one voice I kept hearing in my mind sing the Andrew Lloyd Webber score. As those productions closed, I figured my chance to hear that singular voice belt out "With One Look" or "As If We Never Said Goodbye" had vanished. So, when it was announced last year that former Evita Florence Lacey would finally have the opportunity to play Norma Desmond, I booked my tickets, and her performance more than lived up to my extremely high expectations. Truth be told, I'm not sure how well Norma Desmond would have fared in the talkies of the 1950s, but with that voice, Lacey would have surely been spectacular. Lacey, who played the deluded silent-film star in the Signature Theatre production of the Lloyd Webber musical, brought her tremendous voice — which can be soaringly powerful one minute and heartbreakingly tender the next — to the role. Especially exciting was her showstopping rendition of "As If We Never Said Goodbye," which built to a stunning vocal climax and encompassed the (false) realization of Norma's years of longing and hopes for "new ways to dream." Lacey also imbued Norma with great heart, eschewing camp to provide a human portrait of a lonely, desperate woman vainly trying to recapture her lost glory. Her performance in "New Ways to Dream," as the faded star watches her earlier successes on screen, was riveting and extremely touching. She also had great fun in "The Lady's Paying," but never sacrificed humanity for laughs. We felt her desperation as Joe Gillis began to escape her grasp, and her final mad scene was a triumphant horror show that concluded with another burst of voice in the brief reprise of "With One Look."... I also had the pleasure of catching Lacey, who is part of the cast of the Broadway revival of Follies, go on one night in the role of Carlotta; her performance, terrifically sung and acted, included a glorious "I'm Still Here."

Idina Menzel

For all her self-proclaimed insecurities, Tony Award winner Idina Menzel thankfully has the self-confidence to simply be herself when speaking onstage in concert, and that decision is a completely winning one. In fact, up-and-coming theatre performers who desire a concert career should check out a Menzel performance, for her patter is so down-to-earth, self-deprecating, humorous and seemingly off-the-cuff, one can't help leaving the experience with a great fondness for the artist. I had the pleasure of attending Menzel's Feb. 5 concert at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, which marked the former Rent and Wicked star's New York Philharmonic debut and also boasted Tony winner Marvin Hamlisch as conductor. The Broadway favorite performed a mix of standards, theatre tunes and original songs in the 90-minute program, which breezed by as she wove a spell around the sold-out crowd. Menzel was in terrific voice, her rangy tones excitingly filling the cavernous hall. Early in the show she scored with the touching Wicked ballad, "I'm Not That Girl," as well as a medley of the Cole Porter classic "Love for Sale" and the rock tune "Roxanne." In fact, the latter was such a wonderful, surprising pairing that Menzel should explore combining other standards and pop tunes that share similar themes. The rock balladeer/singing actress, who can be seen on the current season of "Glee," shared amusing anecdotes about being offered rer role on "Glee" and singing for Barbra Streisand at the Kennedy Center Honors before launching into a belty version of "Don't Rain on My Parade." A touching tribute to the late Rent composer Jonathan Larson preceded a particularly poignant delivery of that Pulitzer Prize-winning musical's "No Day But Today." Other high points included a roof-raising version of the Wicked anthem, "Defying Gravity"; a gentle reading of "Look to the Rainbow"; and two masterful reworkings of theatre warhorses, "What I Did for Love" and "Tomorrow," the latter dedicated to her mother, who was among those leading several standing ovations. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was an a cappella version of "For Good," which allowed the audience a chance to hear the purity of Menzel's tones and her exquisite vocal control. 

Mandy Gonzalez in Wicked
photo by Joan Marcus

Mandy Gonzalez, who spent several months in the Broadway production of international hit musical Wicked, was simply sensational as the green-faced, misunderstood, not-so-wicked witch Elphaba, the role created by Tony winner Idina Menzel. The former In the Heights star's vocal work was extraordinary, her powerful alto a perfect fit for the Stephen Schwartz score. In fact, her rendition of "No Good Deed" may be the fiercest I have encountered on my many trips to the Gershwin Theatre, and she brought similar magic to "The Wizard and I" and "Defying Gravity." The Obie winner's acting was also top-notch, offering audiences an honest, moving performance as she made the journey from the hopeful, but questioning young student to the self-possessed woman who discovers the meaning of her powers and the power of love. She was well matched by the Glinda of Katie Rose Clarke, and their second-act duet of "For Good" was truly touching.

Nikki M. James in The Book of Mormon.
photo by Joan Marcus

I can't ever recall laughing more in a musical than I did on several occasions while watching the multiple Tony-winning The Book of Mormon, which continues to break house records at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. But like any of the great musical comedies, this show — from the creators of "South Park" (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and a co-creator of Avenue Q (Robert Lopez) — also has a heart, which beats in the relationships among its three main characters, Elder Cunningham, Elder Price and Nabulungi, who are played by, respectively, Josh Gad, Andrew Rannells and Nikki M. James, who won a Tony for her performance. The young actress, who possesses an exciting, rangy, textured alto, also gets to sing the musical's big ballad, "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," and she does so superbly. She also nails all her comic moments — I was particularly taken with her "texting" — and she shines in her duet with Tony nominee Gad, "Baptize Me."

LuPone in Company.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

There was an embarrassment of riches this year for fans of Tony and Olivier winner Patti LuPone, who was part of the New York Philharmonic's starry concert staging of Stephen Sondheim's Company this past spring, playing the boozy, acerbic, truth-talking Joanne opposite the Bobby of Emmy winner Neil Patrick Harris. LuPone let no quip go by, drawing laugh after laugh while also providing the evening's vocal highpoint, a soul-stirring, belty "The Ladies Who Lunch." When she had performed the Sondheim classic at the composer-lyricist's 80th birthday tribute, I had thought her rendition as good as it gets, but LuPone managed to outdo herself during the Company concerts, investing the song with an astonishing mix of power and fury. And, for the first time since they took Broadway by storm in the original New York production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita, LuPone and Mandy Patinkin shared a Broadway stage in An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, which officially opened to rave reviews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where it continues through Jan. 13. Not since Mary Martin and Ethel Merman famously plopped themselves down on two chairs for a 1953 TV special and dove into a 13-minute duet featuring the songs that made them famous have two musical theatre stars so radically reinterpreted what a concert evening could be — and what two artists could do with two chairs (witness their charming, humorous Act One finale). Both LuPone and Patinkin are in terrific voice. In a two-act, two-hour show that flies by on a cloud of music, both artists reconfirm their places as two of the most exciting musical theatre stars of their generation. To watch either of these performers interpret a song is a thrill, but seeing them together on stage three decades after their Tony-winning work in Evita adds another layer of emotional poignancy. Surprisingly, no Broadway producer had ever approached the stars to reteam following their Evita triumphs, although both won Tony Awards and legions of life-long dedicated fans for their performances. And, it's been Broadway's loss: Watching these two actors delight with healthy doses of Stephen Sondheim tunes as well as scenes and songs from two Rodgers and Hammerstein gems — South Pacific and Carousel — it makes one wonder what magic they might have brought to a host of musicals throughout the years.

Sutton Foster in Anything Goes.
photo by Joan Marcus

I have to confess that when I first heard Tony winner Sutton Foster had been cast as evangelist Reno Sweeney in the revival of Cole Porter's Anything Goes, I had my misgivings. Why I had any doubts I'm not sure, especially since I've yet to see Foster play any role in which she hasn't completely excelled. I was particularly enchanted by her performances in Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Drowsy Chaperone, and she was also the standout in the ill-fated Young Frankenstein. Perhaps since I was so fond of the Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige productions/recordings of the classic musical, it was hard to imagine another actress singing that score, but no matter, Foster proved once again she is a dynamic presence and one of, if not the, leading musical comedy performer of her generation. Foster has the extremely rare knack of making every word she utters sound unscripted — there is no artifice whatsoever. She is also a gifted comedienne, singer and dancer: Her show-stopping performances of the musical's title number and "Blow Gabriel Blow" were not only diva highlights but season highlights.

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