DIVA TALK: The Divas in Concert

News   DIVA TALK: The Divas in Concert
Over the past 15 years or so, I've been lucky enough to see some of the greatest theatre performers of our day in concert, and I thought I would devote this column to some of my favorite concert-going memories. For the purposes of this column, I will only concentrate on the theatre stars, leaving the cabaret experiences of Andrea Marcovicci, Nancy LaMott, Alix Korey, Karen Akers, Eartha Kitt and others for another column in the near future.

Over the past 15 years or so, I've been lucky enough to see some of the greatest theatre performers of our day in concert, and I thought I would devote this column to some of my favorite concert-going memories. For the purposes of this column, I will only concentrate on the theatre stars, leaving the cabaret experiences of Andrea Marcovicci, Nancy LaMott, Alix Korey, Karen Akers, Eartha Kitt and others for another column in the near future.

The first diva who I ever saw perform outside of a Broadway show was Patti LuPone, which was fitting because she was the first of the divas who I ever saw perform in a musical. I had seen Evita when I was in sixth grade after being assigned a school report on Argentina, which led to my buying and falling in love with the original Broadway cast recording. After seeing the Webber/Rice creation and LuPone's eventual departure from the musical, I convinced my parents to take me to Atlantic City the following year to see La LuPone's one-woman concert at the Resorts casino.

Unfortunately, I don't remember as much as I would like to, but I do remember her premiering a then-new Andrew Lloyd Webber song entitled "Tell Me On a Sunday," saying that she would not be in the musical when it came to Broadway, but she was the "first girl on the block" to sing it in America. It was a thrilling rendition of the song as was the entire concert.

I remember most vividly LuPone coming into the audience at one point during the show and flirting with many of the men, including my late father, whose bald spot she rubbed her hand over (a story he delighted in repeating over the years)!

A few years later I saw LuPone again in A.C. (before her Broadway triumph in Anything Goes), and the thrill of that concert was to hear her sing "Meadowlark" live. Much of the material in the show was pop-flavored, including such songs as "Hip To Be Square" and a few others that this theatre maven was unfamiliar with--luckily, she finished the show with her big four at that time : "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," "As Long As He Needs Me," "I Dreamed a Dream" and the aforementioned Baker's Wife tune. The next time I saw LuPone in concert was an entire decade later, during her run last year in Patti LuPone on Broadway, which was inspired by and similar to her engagement at the Westwood Playhouse in California, just before she departed for London to open the world-premiere engagement of Sunset Boulevard. Patti LuPone on Broadway was a wonderful evening that I returned to three more times, and LuPone was in great form each evening. Her voice is one of the wonders of the musical theatre, an instrument that remains strong and unblemished even during a more-than-two-hour evening of continuous singing. Not only a powerful evening of vocals, the concert also featured comedic monologues about her theatrical career, plus show-stopping versions of "Being Alive," "As If We Never Said Goodbye" and more.

Atlantic City was also the location of the next diva I saw in concert, Bernadette Peters, soon after her Tony Award-winning run in Song and Dance. This was during my freshman year of high school, at the height of my BP obsession, having seen her breathtaking performance in Song and Dance four times. I somehow convinced my entire family (Mom, Dad, brother and sister) to make the trek to the famed boardwalk to catch Peters' night-club act. I'll always remember how excited I was when we were able to sit at one of the front tables, and the anticipation of awaiting BP's entrance during the opening act of comedian/juggler Michael Davis (who at one point made me throw him an apple while he was juggling).

Soon enough, though, the announcer's voice boomed, "Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Bernadette Peters." Peters began her hour-long show with her now standard opening "We're in the Money" and had the audience in the palm of her hand for a set that included "Dedicated To the One I Love," "Gee Whiz," "Broadway Baby," Sunday in the Park with George's "Move On," "Other Lady," a riveting "Pearl's a Singer" (complete with tears running down her face; I remember my brother later asking, with complete sincerity, if she was crying because she was having difficulty hitting the notes), a medley of Leonard Bernstein songs, the Peter Allen tune "If You Were Wonderin'" and "Unexpected Song," which was prefaced by the "Second Letter Home" from Song and Dance.

I have since seen Peters perform in concert a few other times, but nothing will ever match her Carnegie Hall concert last year, which showcased the many talents of one of the musical theatre's most incandescent stars. It was a magnificent program that included not only magical steps back in time to her roles in Dames at Sea and Mack and Mabel, but a second act of all Sondheim that boasted one show-stopper after the next. How can you top the beautiful vocal tones of Peters' "Johanna"? Maybe with a solo version of "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." Or, perhaps, an intense, belted-to-the rafters "There Won't Be Trumpets." Or, better yet, a totally new interpretation of the classic Company anthem "Being Alive." Or...

My introduction to Betty Buckley as a concert performer came last of the three premiere American divas. I had long been aware of her talents, having, of course, grown up with "Eight Is Enough," and I even witnessed her second preview of Cats at the Winter Garden Theatre. But it really wasn't until her first solo album -- the now out-of-print Rizzoli recording Betty Buckley -- was released that I realized how great a performer she was, possessed of one of the most beautiful voices in musical theatre history. I believe her singing on that live concert recording may be one of the best vocal displays of all time; there is an exquisite combination of her upper register and her belt on such songs as "Dark Blue Eyed Blues" and "Wind Beneath My Wings," and her rendition of "Meadowlark" is my favorite of the three she has recorded, a slowly-built version that fully explores the text of the song and builds to a wonderful, full-voiced conclusion.

The first time I saw Buckley in concert was at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village, and it was such a joyous experience that I returned again and again, each time bringing different friends and family members to take part in the Buckley experience. What was so great about Buckley's Bottom Line concerts (I think I saw her there nine times) was the relaxed, "homey" atmosphere that she created, performing an eclectic collection of songs, many of which she has yet to record: "Natural Woman," "Another Piece of My Heart," "Prisoner in Disguise," "Boulder to Birgmingham," "You Made Me Love You" and more.

Buckley also has the knack to make you feel like a friend when she performs in concert, and the audiences at the Bottom Line, which always included wildly enthusiastic fans, were not to be topped. That said, however, Buckley's Carnegie Hall concert, which came near the end of her reign in Sunset Boulevard, was one of the most exciting experiences I've ever had in a concert hall or a theatre for that matter. When Buckley presented the three theatre roles--Margaret White's "And Eve Was Weak" from Carrie, Norma Desmond's "With One Look" from Sunset Boulevard and Mama Rose's "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy-- during the second-half of the evening, complete with onstage costume changes, you realized you were witnessing a true moment in theatrical history and a landmark moment in Buckley's career. I doubt that that Buckley experience will ever be topped, and I'm thankful I was there to savor the experience.

As for our English diva, unfortunately, I have yet to be able to witness one of Elaine Paige's full-length concerts live, although I have seen videos of several of them, including her most recent Romance and the Stage tour where Paige's singing was at her most sublime. Her rendition of the classic torch song "Cry Me a River" was superb as was a host of other standards including "They Say It's Wonderful" and "Mad About the Boy," which found Paige using various accents as she explored the characters and the wit of one of Noel Coward's greatest songs. I did journey to Boston (with the flu) this past May to see her U.S. concert debut with the Boston Pops. Although her segment was only 25 minutes long, it was a sensational performance and made me eager to see a full-length Paige concert live, which hopefully U.S. audiences will someday be treated to.

Some other concert highlights include Barbara Cook's concert at the Northshore Music Theatre in Massachusetts while I was in college in the late eighties. Cook's voice soared that evening (a song list that included "Mr. Snow," "Till There Was You," "Losing My Mind," "Sing a Song with Me" and more) as it did when I saw her a few years later during another run in Massachusetts.

I can only imagine what it must have been like to see Ethel Merman perform live, having seen some video footage of her concerts, but I do feel fortunate to have witnessed this generation's supreme theatre artists at their peak. May they continue thrilling this fan and audiences around the world for years to come. Listed below are some concert dates of the aforementioned divas that hopefully you will be able to see. Let me know if you do. I'm always eager to hear about your experiences with our gals!

October 3 in Cincinnati, OH at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
October 10-11 in Dallas, TX at the Myerson Symphony Center
November 7 in Purchase, NY at the Performing Arts Center
November 15 in Brooklyn, NY at the Walt Whitman Hall
May 8, 1998 in New York, NY at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops
May 29-31 in Fort Worth, TX (venue to come)

September 4, 5, 6 in Hollywood, CA at the Hollywood Bowl (with Rebecca Luker and Davis Gaines)
More dates being confirmed

September 19-20 in Charlotte, NC at the Blumenthal Center
October 11 in Milwaukee, WI at the Bruce Hall
October 17-18 in Atlanta, GA (venue to come)
October 30 in Wilmington, DE at the Playhouse Theatre
November 1 in Akron, OH at the E.J. Thomas Hall
November 2 in Clinton Township, MI at the Macomb Center
November 9 Into the Woods reunion concert (ticket info to come)
November 14-15 Honolulu, HI at the Neil Blaisdell Concert Hall
November 21-22 in Tulsa, OK at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center
December 6 in Pittsburgh, PA at the Heinz Hall

This weekend (August 23 and 24) there are two concerts being premiered on Public Television that I thought you might be interested to watch. The first is Jeff Harnar's cabaret act, The 1959 Songbook, which will be aired on WLIW (Channel 21 in NYC) at 8 PM on Saturday night as part of the Brownville Concert Series. Check your local TV guide for listings. The second, which includes a few divas, is entitled CABARET THIRTEEN and is a three-hour evening devoted to the art of cabaret singing. Vocalists include the legendary Ruth Brown as well as such theatre stars as Davis (The Phantom of the Opera) Gaines and Marcia (Chicago) Lewis plus cabaret stars the likes of Michael Feinstein, Steve Ross, David Campbell, Thos Shipley and K.T. Sullivan. The program will be aired on WNET (Channel 13) this Sunday beginning at 8pm with a simulcast on 1560 AM (WQEW).

REMINDERS and more. . .
Karen Akers will be the featured vocalist for two concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, August 22 and 23, when the City of Lights comes to the Bowl (conducted by John Mauceri). Tickets for Vive La France! can be purchased by calling Ticketmaster at 213-480-3232.

Betty Buckley's upcoming Broadway musical, Triumph of Love, begins previews September 23 at the Royale Theatre and officially opens on October 23. Tickets are available by phone by calling 212-432-7250 or 1 800-447-7400) and may be purchased at the box office of the Royale Theatre starting Monday, Sept. 8.

Florence Lacey, Lee Roy Reams and Jerry Herman in An Evening with Jerry Herman will continues at the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, MA through August 30. Rumor has it that Lacey will be repeating her triumphant performance in Evita in Berlin this year. More on that front soon!

A host of singing dates are lined up for the multi-talented McGovern. MM will take part in a benefit at Carnegie Hall on September 29, sing with the Arkansas Symphony on October 4 and then return to Carnegie Hall on October 24 for the New York Pop's season opener. . .

That's all for now. Happy diva-watching!

-- By Andrew Gans
e-mail me at andrew_gans@playbill.com

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