'Kristin Chenoweth: My Love Letter to Broadway': Theater Review

Kristin Chenoweth_Performing - Publicity - H 2016
Walter McBride
Little sparrow, big voice.

The Tony-winning star returns with this concert of personal favorites, which follows the release of her latest studio album of American Songbook classics, 'The Art of Elegance.'

Not since Elle Woods strutted onto the stage in the Legally Blonde musical has one woman sported so much girly-girl pink on Broadway. For her terrifically entertaining concert series, titled My Love Letter to Broadway, Kristin Chenoweth has been swathed by costumer Christian Siriano in various shades of fuchsia, starting out in a sexy sequined hot-pants romper, then graduating into a sleek tailored pantsuit and, finally, into the mother of all cotton-candy princess gowns. But Chenoweth could just as convincingly have worn military fatigues, such is the disciplined command with which this sparkplug performer holds the stage through two hours-plus of eclectic song selections and personal reminiscences.

Actually, make that fills the stage. Chenoweth draws attention to her diminutive stature by referring to "the original 4' 11" songstress" before she launches into a peppy version of the Judy Garland hit, "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," one of a handful of tracks she performs from her recent studio album, The Art of Elegance. But accompanied by a tip-top six-piece band masterfully led by music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell on the Steinway, Chenoweth has energy, talent and charisma that are anything but tiny.

Directed with polish by Richard Jay-Alexander, who has overseen Chenoweth's extensive touring appearances in recent years, the show starts with the star in a bathrobe penning a letter to producer James L. Nederlander, weaving the basics of her bio about being a girl from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, who dreamed of Broadway, into a sugary version of "You Made Me Love You." Then off comes the robe as Chenoweth sashays about the stage to a stripper vamp from Gypsy, slurping from a 7-Eleven Big Gulp as she breathlessly savors this "full-circle moment" in her career. In the first of many insouciantly self-parodying references to an ego in direct inverse proportion to her size, the star points out the KC monogram, wrapped Louis Vuitton-style around the entire proscenium. She then breezes effortlessly through "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady, which demonstrates her famous operatic high notes to dazzling effect.

Chenoweth claims that no two shows in this 12-performance engagement will be alike, so musical theater lovers coming later in the run will likely get variations on the set list. Each show will feature a guest appearance by a different youth choir, as well as other special guests. At Thursday's performance, celebrated lyric soprano Renee Fleming, no less, dropped by for a duet on "Over the Rainbow," in which her soaring vocals had Chenoweth quietly seething with mock-jealous rage. "That was inspiring," she deadpanned immediately after. "I hope she makes it home alive."

Chenoweth's miles on the concert circuit have served her well in terms of interacting with the audience. Her banter is relaxed, funny and warm, and she takes full advantage of the large space while also creating an intimate cabaret feel. In an amusing comedy bit she touched on the election, repurposing one of her signature songs from Wicked, "Popular," as a how-to guide for Donald Trump to improve his public image.

But the title of the concert series is something of a misnomer in that as much of the material comes from pop, country, Christian music, movies or the American Songbook as from Broadway. That includes such highlights as a spirited take on Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow," with gorgeous harmonies from Campbell and stirring work on percussion and strings from the band, brought downstage for the occasion. Chenoweth and Campbell also sound exquisite together on a moving ballad reinterpretation of Don Henley's "The Heart of the Matter," a response to the gun violence and terror attacks ripping the world apart. Chenoweth also made something beautiful out of the unlikely mashup of Willie Nelson and Stephen Sondheim, exploring two sides of a broken relationship in a torchy "Always on My Mind" fused with "Losing My Mind" from Follies.

Testifying about the importance of faith in her life while reaffirming her right to be both a Christian and an LGBT activist, Chenoweth introduced what she called "a Jesus song," adding, "For you atheists, it'll be over in about four minutes." But bringing out the Performing Arts Choir on a roof-raising rendition of Sandi Patty's "Upon This Rock" seemed somewhat superfluous when Chenoweth's powerhouse vocals pretty much drowned them out. The choir was better served in Act 2 when they returned on Lady Antebellum's "I Was Here," a nod to the charity initiatives of Chenoweth and Campbell.

Some of the show tunes, oddly, felt more routine. Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are" was a virtuoso display that sapped the poetry out of the song with more technical prowess than heart. And "Dance: Ten; Looks: Three" from A Chorus Line — sung in the sanitized Bible Belt version in which "tits and ass" become "boobs and butt" — provided a fun anecdote (composer Marvin Hamlisch was horrified) rather than an essential musical number. The strangest inclusion was "A Quiet Thing," from Kander and Ebb's seldom-produced Liza Minnelli vehicle Flora, the Red Menace; the song has a pretty midsection but requires too much talky character context to stand on its own. Far more rewarding and unexpected was Chenoweth's hymn-like treatment of "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables, a song traditionally performed by a tenor.

Only occasionally did the syrupiness become a little cloying, as in "Fifty Years," a song by Jason Robert Brown that marked the enduring union of Chenoweth's parents, seated in the audience. And while the star's adoration for Madeline Kahn is no secret (in her last Broadway appearance, she aced a notoriously demanding role Kahn had originated in On the Twentieth Century), taking on the late actress' priceless Marlene Dietrich spoof, "I'm Tired," from Blazing Saddles, yielded a pale imitation. The original remains untouchable. Far funnier was a song from the unproduced musical adaptation of Soapdish, "I'm Not a Diva," written for Chenoweth's character and enlivened by droll input from Campbell and the band, attesting to the "perfectionist" nature of the boss.

Chenoweth is in superb voice, supple and controlled, and the selections from The Art of Elegance were lovely, including "I Get Along Without You Very Well" and the heart-tugging Burt Bacharach-Hal David standard, "A House is Not a Home," which she performed first on Glee and then in the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises. Also from the album was "Smile," an uplifting anthem almost as relentlessly overexposed in the popular repertoire as John Lennon's "Imagine," yet performed as an encore here with a fresh spin and a depth of dramatic feeling that made it sound brand new.

Venue: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York
Cast: Kristin Chenoweth
Director: Richard Jay-Alexander
Additional material: Marco Pennette
Set designer: Ron Bissinger
Costume designer: Christian Siriano
Lighting designer: Matt Berman
Sound designers: Matt Berman, Matt Kraus
Music director & arrangements: Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Presented by James L. Nederlander