To the long list of adjectives we toss around like verbal confetti to describe Kristin Chenoweth – radiant, impish, perky, sunny, funny! – we can now add fearless. In her concert at the Nederlander Theatre, “For the Girls,” which draws on her new album of the same name, the gifted Broadway star dares to sing songs indelibly associated with some of the greatest female popular singers in American history.
For instance? Oh, Judy Garland. And Barbra Streisand. Doris Day. Karen Carpenter. Linda Ronstadt. Let’s not forget another petite blonde with whom Chenoweth shares both a down-home earthiness and a formidable wit: Dolly Parton.
More timid performers might fight shy of songs that could inspire invidious comparison with these immortals. And Chenoweth does not search out obscurities, either: “The Way We Were” and “Over the Rainbow” are hardly rarities in the canons of Streisand and Garland.
But here, the risk is more than worth the reward, amounting to a quirky but enchanting evening of song, punctuated by Chenoweth’s endearing wit and sweet, silly self-mockery.
The most celebrated songs in her set list are, in truth, not really the highlights of the show. While it is interesting to hear Chenoweth’s take on “The Way We Were,” “Over the Rainbow” and “The Man That Got Away,” her interpretations are not likely to obliterate memories of the originals. They are not meant to, of course, but in searching to personalize these songs, so indelible in the memory in their original recordings, Chenoweth sometimes seems to be wandering in search of a style.
But then she has a lot of styles to choose from. Although she is a classically trained singer who can trill with the best of them, Chenoweth has no trouble modulating her voice to suit any number of popular song varieties. A native of Oklahoma, she comes naturally to the folksier, country-flavored songs of Trisha Yearwood, whose “The Song Remembers When” is a rousing highlight of the first act. So, too, is the much-covered Lesley Gore hit “You Don’t Own Me,” and an achingly lovely version of “Desperado,” an Eagles song that she (like many, probably) admits she knows best from the gorgeous Ronstadt recording.
And Chenoweth’s rendition of Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” sung as an encore, partly a capella, is simply breathtaking in its quiet emotional intensity: It feels like a whisper in the deep of night that haunts you all the next day. I was equally moved by the pureness and simplicity of her singing of the 19th-century Stephen Foster parlor song “Beautiful Dreamer” – not the kind of thing you regularly hear on a Broadway stage. (I was disappointed not to hear her sing “What a Difference a Day Makes,” the lone song on her recording primarily associated with a black artist, Dinah Washington; then again, in these parlous times she might be accused of cultural appropriation.)
The title of the concert, smoothly directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, actually has two meanings. Chenoweth is not just tipping her hat to her great influences, she also is sharing the concert with some other gifted “girls,” ceding surprisingly generous amounts of stage time not just to her two terrific backing vocalists, Crystal Monee Hall and Marissa Rosen, and, on occasion, her excellent musical director and pianist, Mary-Mitchell Campbell, but also to two guest performers.
At the performance I saw, Jenn Gambatese, who has appeared in several Broadway shows, got a solo spot on “I Have Confidence,” from the movie version of “The Sound of Music” (Gambatese played Maria at the Chicago Lyric Opera). That’s probably nobody’s favorite song from the show — indeed it’s Julie Andrews’ least favorite — but she makes a compelling case for it. And Julie James, perhaps best known as a host for Sirius Radio’s Broadway programming, displays a splendid voice and matching technique on “Sing Happy,” from “Flora the Red Menace.”
This inclusiveness — the guests will change with each performance — is an unexpected gesture, but perhaps not surprising from a performer of Chenoweth’s natural warmth and open-armed spiritedness. Her delight in her fellow performers is obviously sincere, as is her wish to give them a showcase within her own show.
Chenoweth even allowed Gambatese, who toured in the role of Galinda (or Glinda) in “Wicked,” originated of course by Chenoweth on Broadway, to sing most of the vocals on “Popular,” the zesty comic song that is, well, indelibly associated with Chenoweth herself. She chimed in a bit, sparkling wand in hand, but mostly just looked on, smiling encouragement.
To turn over your most, um, popular song to someone else in a concert you are headlining might seem perverse, but it is also pointed. Chenoweth is indicating that, just as she takes inspiration from her idols not just by listening to them, but by singing their most beloved material, she is happy for others to do the same with her own big “hit.” Great songs belong to everyone, and anyone: the more people sing them, the merrier we all are.
And, to return to the idea of Chenoweth’s blithe daring, while it may be a spoiler, I have to tip my hat to her final encore, another a capella performance, this time of the slightly schmaltzy standard “Smile,” which Chenoweth performs while cradling her adorable dog in her arms.
A seasoned pro like Chenoweth surely knows the old adage, oft attributed to W.C. Fields: Never work with children or animals. And, yep, the cute pooch upstaged her with his (her?) well-timed yawns and slightly disdainful, room-ranging stare. But, bless her big heart — and her big voice — Chenoweth has the confidence not to care.
“Kristin Chenoweth: For the Girls” runs at the Nederlander Theatre from Nov. 8 through Nov. 17.
Photo Credit: Bruce Glikas/ForTheGirlsBway
Producers: James L. Nederlander
Creative: Directed by Richard Jay-Alexander; Musical Director: Mary-Mitchell Campbell; Musical Staging by Tyler Hanes; Lighting Design by Matt Berman; Sound Design by Matt Berman and Bob Hanlon; Special Dress Design: Christian Siriano.
Cast: Kristin Chenoweth, Crystal Monee Hall, Marissa Rosen, Tyler Hanes, Mimi Scardulla.