DIVA TALK: The Best of 2012 | Playbill

News DIVA TALK: The Best of 2012
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Stephanie J. Block in Anything Goes.
Stephanie J. Block in Anything Goes. Photo by Joan Marcus

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 2013.

THE BEST OF 2012 (in alphabetical order)

If you were among those thrilled by Sutton Foster's performance in the recent Tony-winning revival of Anything Goes, you would have been equally wowed by the star turn that Stephanie J. Block provided as sexy evangelist Reno Sweeney at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre. Block, whose textured, rangy Broadway belt is currently being used to grand effect in the revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, offered a terrific performance as nightclub singer-turned-evangelist Sweeney. The Drama Desk nominee, in fact, was a humorous delight in the role, earning laugh after laugh while thrilling the audience with her rich, velvety renditions of such Porter classics as "I Get a Kick Out Of You," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," "Friendship" and the title tune. I left the theatre wanting more Porter and more Block.

Betty Buckley
photo by Myriam Santos
From the moment Tony winner Betty Buckley made her entrance at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, belting out Chicago's "When You're Good to Mama" while weaving in and out of the packed room, one could tell the evening would be an exciting one. Like last year's critically acclaimed Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway, which is thankfully now available on CD, the inimitable Buckley set her focus on a specific group of musical theatre tunes, those written for the second female lead, the featured actress or, as Buckley's title suggested, The Other Woman: The Vixens of Broadway. In a dozen or so songs, Buckley provided startlingly strong evidence that these supporting players are often handed some of the show's best tunes: a pulsing "Another Hundred People," a touching, solo version of "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," a humorous "I Know Things Now," a deeply felt "Something Wonderful" and a zesty, belty "The Miller's Son." Buckley, herself, knows a thing or two about scoring in a supporting role. She won her Tony for her heartbreaking turn as the faded Grizabella in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, and she even sent up her signature tune, "Memory," in a terrific segment penned by Eric Kornfeld and Eric Stern entitled "But Play The Other Woman." In the extended medley, Buckley also had the chance to show off her soaring mezzo in comical takes on "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Little Girls." Highlights also included duets with full-voiced singing actor Adam Berry on the Company charmer "Barcelona" and the little-heard Promises, Promises tune "A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing." It was, unsurprisingly, Buckley, seated alone on a stool, who provided the evening's high point: a simple, haunting rendition of the gorgeous Nine ballad "Unusual Way" that the singing actress delivered with infinite skill, pouring emotion and voice into the beautiful Maury Yeston lyric. In the audience the night this diva lover attended was Cats choreographer Gillian Lynne, who will direct Buckley in the forthcoming London revival of Jerry Herman's Dear World, which one can only hope will make the transatlantic leap and allow Buckley to cast her special brand of magic over Broadway audiences.

Carolee Carmello in Scandalous.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Tony Award nominee Carolee Carmello, the vocal powerhouse who was Tony-nominated for her performances in Parade and Lestat, was back on Broadway earlier this season in Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, the new musical by bookwriter and librettist Kathie Lee Gifford and composers David Friedman and David Pomeranz. This tale of sex, drugs, religion, celebrity, music and romance cast the stellar singing actress — who boasts one of the great belts in the American musical theatre, a rich, soaring tone with a seemingly endless range — as evangelist McPherson, who was internationally known in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Carmello, whose Broadway resume also includes performances in Falsettos, Urinetown, 1776, City of Angels, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Mamma Mia! and Sister Act, among others, played Aimee from her youth to her premature death from drugs in 1944 at age 53, and she did so without one false move.
Patti LuPone
photo by Ethan Hill
For years, I've bemoaned the fact that I missed Patti LuPone's record-breaking run at the long-closed Manhattan cabaret Les Mouches. Yet, that feeling disappeared after I saw her spellbinding performance at the city's newest nightspot, 54 Below, for the two-time Tony winner couldn't have been any more thrilling 30 years ago than she was this past June. That someone I've admired since I was 11 can still manage to surprise and impress is quite exceptional. LuPone's act, entitled Far Away Places, was brilliantly structured, and the actress, also in top form in the short-lived The Anarchist, was in total command in every facet: vocally, comedically and dramatically. She's returning to the new room New Year's Eve—don't miss her! (LuPone will also be part of Playbill's third Broadway on the High Seas cruise, which sets sail Aug. 4, 2013, from Stockholm, Sweden.)

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess.
Photo by Michael J. Lutch
Four-time Tony winner Audra McDonald deservedly added a fifth award to her mantel June 10 for her breathtaking performance in the Tony-winning revival of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. The acclaimed singing actress, who also won Outer Critics Circle, Drama League and Drama Desk awards for her work as the ill-fated Bess, had already nabbed Broadway's highest honor for her standout performances in Carousel, Master Class, Ragtime and A Raisin in the Sun; however, her latest acknowledgment was her first in the category of Best Leading Actress in a Musical. McDonald's dramatic take on the drug-addicted Bess was often gut-wrenching, and her soaring duet with co-star Norm Lewis on the Gershwin classic "I Loves You, Porgy" was one of the season's most memorable moments.

Lindsay Mendez in Dogfight.
photo by Joan Marcus
In the revival of Stephen Schwartz's Godspell, Lindsay Mendez impressed with her rangy alto, but in the Off-Broadway musical Dogfight — featuring a score by A Christmas Story's Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — the young artist had the chance to display her range as an actress. Mendez poured herself into the role of Rose, a waitress and aspiring songwriter who is the victim of a mean-spirited game spearheaded by a group of young marines who have 24 hours before heading to Vietnam. Mendez brought great humanity to Rose, and one couldn't help empathize with her character's longing for a relationship. Mendez was funny, charming, touching and admirable as the socially-conscious Rose and also scored in all of the musical moments.

Caroline O'Connor in A Christmas Story, The Musical.
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Powerhouse may be the best word to describe Australian and West End musical theatre star Caroline O'Connor, who is currently creating her first role on Broadway, strict, buttoned-up teacher Miss Shields in A Christmas Story, The Musical. Though she's playing a featured role, it's O'Connor's booming voice, comic antics and thrilling tap number "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" — performed with sensational young tapper Luke Spring — that lingers in one's memory. O'Connor has performed throughout the world in productions of Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, Follies and Piaf. Let's hope she gets to tackle one of those classics on Broadway.


Elaine Paige
In her New York concert debut Feb. 10 in the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Elaine Paige demonstrated once again why she was able to originate the leading roles in Evita, Cats and Chess, triumph equally well with revivals of The King and I, Piaf and Anything Goes and even put her own stamp on Sweeney Todd's Nellie Lovett and Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond: pure talent mixed with a voice that soars like few others and a genuine joie de vivre that is completely contagious. The London treasure, who was most recently seen in the acclaimed revival of Follies, didn't offer her roof-raising version of that musical's "I'm Still Here," but she did manage to include a song from each of her numerous London hits. The singing actress, dressed in a low-cut black dress, began her 80-minute set with a pairing of West Side Story's "America" and Sting's "Englishman in New York," which included a few rewritten lyrics that referenced Broadway Cares, All That Chat and more. The remainder of her program was similar to a concert this writer caught two summers ago in Atlantic City, and, as thrilling as she sounded then, her voice was remarkably even more powerful in this intimate setting that overlooks Central Park. In fact, when that singular voice opened in its upper register and out came a rich, throbbing tone, one could only sit back and revel in the magnificent sound. Paige delivered showstopper after showstopper, including a heartfelt "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" that garnered the evening's first of many standing ovations; a thoroughly moving "As If We Never Said Goodbye," where actress met singer in superb fashion; a gorgeous "I Know Him So Well," which sounded eerily similar to her first recording of the tune over two decades ago; and two songs from Piaf ("Non, je ne regrette rien" and "If You Love Me") that threatened to bring down the house. She followed with her signature tune, an equally heartfelt "Memory," and then delivered what may be the definitive version of the torch classic "Cry Me a River." But, it should be noted, it's not only the voice and the interpretive powers that make Paige such a wonderful entertainer: She is also a gifted storyteller who is able to poke fun at herself in both story and song ("Small Packages," a tune written for the actress by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, was a delight and featured such lyrics as "I may be short. I may be svelte, but bet your ass, this b*tch can belt!") Paige also scored with a terrific rendition of "Broadway Baby," which featured humorous stories of her theatrical misadventures prior to Evita; the Beatles classic "Yesterday," her audition piece for Evita; a jazzy "I Get a Kick Out Of You"; a touching "Easy to Be Hard" from Hair; and a lovely reading of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Hello, Young Lovers."

Rachel Potter in Evita.
Photo by Richard Termine
Though her stage time was minimal, Rachel Potter managed to make a vivid impression as Peron's Mistress in the current Broadway revival of Evita. In fact, Potter—who was also seen in the original Broadway cast of The Addams Family —offered some of the best singing of the night in a wonderfully crafted "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" that the singing actress built to an exciting and moving conclusion. In fact, as I left the theatre, I wondered how Potter would have scored in the musical's title role.

Adrienne Warren in Bring It On: The Musical.
photo by Joan Marcus
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice may have written about it, but Adrienne Warren's got it; star quality, that is. The beautiful actress is one of 30 young artists currently making a Broadway debut in the upbeat, family-friendly Bring It On: The Musical, the new, high-energy musical at the St. James Theatre that ends its run Dec. 30. Warren, who was also seen in the City Center Encores! production of The Wiz and as Lorrell in the recent national tour of Dreamgirls, portrays the no-nonsense Danielle in Bring It On, a role that earned her an Atlanta Theater Fan Award nomination. As Danielle, Warren gets the chance to showcase her rich, resonant and rangy voice as well as her acting, comedic and cheerleading chops. I look forward to seeing what role this up-and-coming actress tackles next.


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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