Idina Menzel and the Nashville Symphony at the Woods at Fontanel
We always wonder how much a symphony enjoys being a backup band. Stuck literally playing second fiddle to Broadway star Idina Menzel’s own band — which was center stage at the Woods at Fontanel — the Nashville Symphony’s concertmaster broke into a smile halfway through a pretty brilliant mash-up of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and “Roxanne.” Maybe, during all of those violin lessons growing up, she never thought she was going to be in a Police cover band someday, but here she was enjoying it. It was going to be a good night.
Menzel powered her way through an ambitious set list which started “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and ended with West Side Story’s “Somewhere,” sprinkling in a variety of pop tunes, new material and favorites from Tony-recognized performances. Most songs were preceded by extended, sometimes profane monologues from the funny Menzel, something an adoring crowd full of Rent and Wicked fans ate up, especially when she jokingly called Beyonce a bitch.
Menzel’s voice is one of the best of this generation, and when she steps into something made famous by Barbara Streisand, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” for example, it’s no stretch. She’s got the power and presence to execute a really difficult piece. The only time the show clanged was during a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” It’s material more suited to John Cusack and a boom box than someone with a really dynamic range.
We enjoyed the low-key evening, and the Fontanel folks were clearly delighted to have the symphony out there. Though the venue is a work in progress — the porta-johns and folding chairs don’t scream “world-class” just yet — there was something pretty magical about sitting in the woods at twilight, a performance backlit by the sunset and helped along by an orchestra of crickets in the trees. Bring some bug spray, though. You’re in their house.
Menzel, meanwhile, seemed to understand well the connection her two biggest Broadway hits have had among younger fans. As she waded into the crowd to looking for partners to sing the lesbian duet “Take Me or Leave Me” from Rent, she found no shortage of takers, including a 10-year-old girl named Scout who received a roar of approval as Menzel helped her belt it out. She made her way back, signing autographs and posing for pictures with excited fans as she tried out more duet partners. She finally pulled a group of teenage girls and a boy back up on stage to finish the song, something sure to set Tumblr pages ablaze, most likely before the show was even finished.
As she closed the set with “Defying Gravity,” the Woods turned into a sing-along with a largely wide-eyed audience. We would have been much happier to just hear Menzel than the 30 people around us joining in on the girl-power anthem, but that was the trade-off for a largely successful show. Thank God for “Somewhere,” Bernstein and Sondheim’s gorgeous ballad, which Menzel saved for the last encore. It was a reminder that, whatever popularity she’s achieved, it’s because of that voice. That beautiful voice.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” / “The Wizard and I”
“Love for Sale” / “Roxanne”
“Both Sides Now
“Don’t Rain on My Parade
(new song co-written with Charlie Midnight)
“Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” / “In Your Eyes”
“Take Me or Leave Me”
“No Day but Today”
“Learn to Live Without”