Kristin Chenoweth in Concert
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, June 17
Idina Menzel with the Sydney Symphony
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, June 27
The opportunity to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel perform at the Sydney Opera House just 10 days apart was heaven on a stick for Sydney musical theatre lovers – particularly fans of Wicked, some of whom doubtless saw the pair co-star in the Broadway production; Chenoweth as the bubbly good witch Glinda and Menzel as the green-skinned Elphaba.
They both seemed genuinely thrilled to be performing at the world famous venue – and the adoring audience returned their enthusiasm tenfold, giving each a sustained standing ovation, while Chenoweth was also met with one.
Both divas are blessed with an amazing set of pipes and gave “epic” concerts, as my plus-one put it, that required a huge, powerhouse sing. But never having seen either of them live before, it was fascinating to compare their different styles.
The petite Chenoweth – all 4’11” of her – is vivaciousness personified, exuding megawatts of gleaming Broadway pizzazz.
The evening began with a montage of images from across her starry career on a huge screen hanging over the stage. Changing outfits twice, her mike stand was blinged-up in the second act to match her sparkling high heels, radiant smile and sassy, shiny stage presence.
Backed by her long-time friend and musical director Mary-Mitchell Campbell and an 11-piece band, Chenoweth’s clarion-clear voice is a remarkable instrument: equally powerful right across her entire register and across genres from country and gospel to Broadway and disco.
The audience went berserk when she sang Popular from Wicked, which she had fun with by singing sections in German and Japanese, while her renditions of Bring Him Home from Les Misérables and Kander and Ebb’s My Colouring Book were spine-tingling.
During her Australian concerts, Chenoweth has been inviting an audience member to sing For Good with her; in Sydney, that honour went to Australia’s own Glinda Lucy Durack, with Chenoweth taking Elphaba’s part.
It was clear Durack was totally taken by surprised and hadn’t rehearsed the number. “I’ve lived my whole life as a B grade version of you,” she said. But though obviously overwhelmed, she kept it together in one of the most touching moments of the concert.
Besides musical theatre numbers, Chenoweth did a tribute to Dolly Parton, an 1845 anthem Hard Times Come Again No More by Stephen Foster and a gospel number, quipping: “If you believe in Jesus, this is for you; if not it’s only four minutes….. Shalom!”
She talked about her faith as a Christian – albeit a controversial one given her support for same-sex marriage – and her charity work. At one point she showed us a sweet, personal video she sent to her father on Father’s Day and gave us a glimpse into her shoe closet, which rivals Imelda Marcos’s.
At times, the tone became a little sentimental and schmaltzy in that all-American way. Her three back-up singers, who occasionally dueted with her, seemed somewhat inexperienced and an Avenue Q skit sat oddly.
But no matter. Chenoweth’s enthusiasm is infectious and endearing, she’s very funny, and her voice is glorious. The audience couldn’t have loved her more if they tried and left exhilarated.
Menzel was more low-key, laid-back and earthy but no less winning. Barefoot and wearing a long, lacy, slightly boho black dress tied at the waist, she stalked the stage as she chatted to the audience. A Jewish girl from Queens, New York who began her career singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs, she displayed a dry sense of humour and an occasional potty-mouth.
She is clearly blissed out to be a mother to her young son with husband Taye Diggs, who she met when they performed together in Rent (in which she created the role of Maureen). Motherhood, she said, has allowed her to tap into greater depths of emotion.
Performing with the Sydney Symphony, conducted by Vanessa Scammell, and several American musicians she had brought with her, Menzel appeared to the strains of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which quickly morphed into The Wizard and I – to a roar of approval from the audience.
As at Chenoweth’s concert, the musical theatre numbers got the biggest response from the audience, among them Don’t Rain on My Parade and a beautiful rendition of Somewhere – her “favourite song ever”.
She gave moving tributes to Marvin Hamlisch, who became a close friend of hers, singing At the Ballet and What I Did for Love from A Chorus Line, and also Jonathan Larson who died just before the first preview of Rent.
Four lucky audience members got to sing Take Me Or Leave Me with her – including a little girl, aged around five, whose mother put her up for it. Menzel dealt kindly with the child and invited them to go backstage afterwards.
Other numbers included a moving rendition of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, an effective mash-up of Cole Porter’s Love for Sale and Sting’s Roxanne and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face – the first number she did on Glee – commiserating tongue-in-cheek with the musicians of the orchestra for having to perform such fare.
Though performing with a symphony orchestra, the evening felt surprisingly intimate.
She had the audience holding their collective breath when she ended the concert with an acappella version of For Good, then wrapped things up with the obligatory Defying Gravity.
It may not be the best she’s ever sung it (she had been coughing a little, drinking lots of water and sucked a lozenge at one point) but it was still amazing.
Once again, the audience left on a high. While Chenoweth delivers pizzazz in spades, Menzel perhaps taps into the heart a little more. But both were stunning. Heaven.