Idina Menzel soars in Saenger debut with an electrifying performance
Idina Menzel doesn’t waste any time.
Upon taking to the stage at the Saenger Theatre Thursday night (July 30), she launched into the song that made her a Broadway superstar. Opening her New Orleans debut with “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked,” Menzel soared into a high-flying concert.
Despite starting about a half-hour after the scheduled curtain time, the audience roared as she appeared at the top of an upstage staircase. Over her little black dress, she wore a copper wrap – what better conductivity for an electrifying performance.
Starring on Broadway as the original Elphaba in “Wicked,” and more recently providing the voice of Elsa in the animated hit film, “Frozen,” Menzel has built her fame on her big, belting high voice. Although she told the audience she was a bit under the weather, relying regularly on a nearby cup of tea, that huge voice was much in evidence throughout her more than two-hour performance.
Through a set list of about 20 numbers, Menzel showcased a repertoire of her expected hit songs from “Wicked,” “Frozen” and “Rent,” in which she also was part of the original cast, but also performed a variety of other styles.
Recalling a young Barbra Streisand, she made “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl” her own, giving it a jazzier edge. A string of songs associated with the 20th century’s best-known belter, Ethel Merman, were likely introduced to new audiences as Menzel knocked out “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Anything Goes” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Her ability to hit – and hold – the highest notes might just rival Merman.
Beyond the vocal pyrotechnics, what makes Menzel’s voice especially stand out is the clear, bright soprano that she also shows, as well as a remarkable sense of control. Only by the end of the challenging performance did she start to show a slight bit of vocal strain.
Joni Mitchell’s “River” had a pleasing folk quality to it. A sultry “Love for Sale” had a directness to it that was cutting and cynical. Intertwining the Cole Porter standard with bits of “Roxanne” by The Police added to the sizzle.
“Always Starting Over” from her most recent appearance in a Broadway show, last year’s “If/Then,” was a particularly powerful moment into which Menzel poured her heart. Similarly touching was another song from “Rent,” “No Day But Today,” which she dedicated to the playwright and composer Jonathan Larson, who died the night before “Rent” opened in 1996.
An a cappella rendition of “For Good” from “Wicked” showed the more delicate side of Menzel’s voice as she even did without the microphone. Her pleasing tone still came across the vast reach of the Saenger.
Menzel created an easy sense of showmanship, engaging the audience throughout the night with clever banter, even if the purported spontaneity feels written into the show. Spotting an empty seat or two in the first row has her choosing an audience member from farther away to come forward. And the selection of others to join her onstage to sing “Take Me or Leave Me,” a duet from “Rent” – a gimmick also used in concerts by her “Wicked” co-star Kristin Chenoweth – loses its freshness when audience members are overly prepped, spurred on by countless YouTube clips of such moments.
One instance, however, no matter how often it might be done, touched the collective heart of the audience. As she sang “Let It Go,” the overwhelming hit from “Frozen,” she sat on the edge of the stage and invited a handful of little children to join her. As they sweetly tackled the lines to the song they’ve listened to again and again, the coldest of hearts melted.
Indeed, Menzel planted the seeds of a dream in many young hearts that night. For her final encore, she sang “Tomorrow,” relating the story of how, as a child, she sang the perennial anthem from “Annie” over and over. It led to her love for musical theater and drove her passion into a shining career. She now has passed that dream to a new generation.