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BWW Review: Idina Menzel Ignites Carnegie Hall

Idina Menzel is having a moment.

Hand over heart and eyes slightly misty as she breathes in the waves of adoration from the sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall, the expression as she smiles is one of gratitude but also slightly of disbelief. The moment (this time) has been a whirlwind season punctuated by a new holiday record (the reason for this specific gathering) and the countless appearances in parades and on talk shows that go with it, as well as a co-starring role alongside Adam Sandler in UNCUT GEMS (one of the year’s best reviewed films), a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a return to the billion dollar animated franchise FROZEN, for which Menzel voices the story’s powerful and conflicted female protagonist.

Such a moment alone would be a benchmark event (perhaps THE benchmark event) of any performer’s career, but for Menzel the crashing waves of dizzying success have, in truth, come in a dazzling assemblage of such otherworldly moments.

There was the moment in 1996, when Menzel, barely out of NYU, scored her first professional acting gig as Maureen in (what would soon become the biggest theatrical hit in twenty years) the musical, RENT. The moment seven years later when Menzel would take on (and win a Tony for) creating the role of Elphaba in WICKED (an even bigger hit than RENT). There was the moment she “Let it Go” and brought Elsa to life on screen (the first time, and for the first billion dollar box office intake) and the ‘Adele Dazeem’ mistaken identity moment that made her one of the internet’s first (and biggest) memes.

Indeed, you’d likely have to go all the way back to Streisand, or perhaps Minnelli to find a musical theatre song-stress who has made such an indelible impact on pop culture, but even within that illustrious pantheon, Idina Menzel’s appeal is special. Unique. There is the voice – no question – a siren wail of spine tingling range and power, along with the prerequisite-for-stardom propensity for glamour and uncommon beauty. But if Minnelli’s appeal was in her desperate need to be loved by an audience and Streisand’s the desperate need to prove, Menzel’s seems to be an everyman disbelief that she – the girl from Long Island – the former wedding singer turned superstar – is now standing on mount Olympus reaching down to connect with you. When she reaches out (a whiff of terror occasionally passing her eyes) the grasp seems almost to say – ‘hold me up, I’m just the same as you.’ Thus, in her own way, Menzel’s career has mirrored the iconic roles she is most identified with. She is the reluctant hero and role model, who perhaps never completely comfortable leading the charge does so anyway, and wins our veneration in the process

In plain speak, Menzel’s ultimate appeal is a mixture of supreme talent and abandoned authenticity. And in this moment (of moments) at Carnegie Hall which finds Menzel at the absolute pinnacle of her vocal gifts and relishing (or perhaps acquiescing at last to) this latest wave of volcanic success, for us too it is a minute to breathe in and savor.

Following closely the track list of Idina Menzel, Christmas: A Season of Love, a swinging and well produced record of standards old and new, Menzel, accompanied by expert arranger and music director, Ron Fair, and a uniformly excellent cadre of musicians attacks with aplomb favorites both fun (“Sleigh Ride” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”) and majestic (“Oh Holy Night/ Ave Maria”). Joined by her husband, the talented Aaron Lohr on “I’ll Be Home for Chrismtas” and an impromptu salsa to the Hannukah themed, “Ocho Kandelikas” provide, in turns, romance and playfullness, and a duet with the wonderful Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who along with husband Robert Lopez is the composer-lyricist of FROZEN, and the songwriting team Menzel is quickly becoming most identified with) offers a spirited and welcome new ‘feminist’ Christmas carol celebrating “A Hand for Mrs. Claus.” And surprise 11th hour guest, the always fabulous Billy Porter matches Menzel beat by beat, in both charisma and pipes, with “I’ve Got your Love to Keep Me Warm.”

If the repetitive jaunt of most holiday music doesn’t exactly provide Menzel the opportunity to express the full spectrum of her musical and interpretive gifts, it nevertheless showcases her skill at simply being and for having fun. An ever self-deprecating (and funny) hostess, always aware of the irony of a Christmas album coming from the ‘Jewish girl from Syosset,” Menzel’s matter of fact candor brings to mind the well coiffed favorite aunt you might steal a glass of wine with in the kitchen during an over long family celebration. And let’s be real, those are always the people you most want to spend the holidays with.

But with the new and self penned, “At This Table” – a heartfelt plea for peace and inclusion, and a deftly woven with winter magic take on “Defying Gravity,” Menzel’s signature blend of soaring vocals and urgent storytelling comes thrillingly centerstage.

Older, wiser, and admittedly less fearless than she once was, much of Menzel’s current joy seems to stem from the work she does with young people – represented in her concert by a talented dozen performers from A Broaderway, an organization Menzel founded in 2010 (with the goal of empowering young women through the arts), and of course, through what has become an exuberant tradition in her concerts; an impromptu sing a long of her greatest hit, “Let it Go” with the eager-to-participate kids in the audience. Their clear, youthful devotion and her relaxed reprieve in their company both wonderfully true.

Closing her show with FROZEN’s latest probing anthem, “Into the Unknown” (a song she just could be performing next year on the Oscar telecast) it’s hard to not imagine, after this moment of moments, what could possibly come next for the actress singing it. But watching her here at Carnegie Hall – standing and facing these waves – at the peak of her creative powers, and openly embracing the gift at hand, it seems hard to not be certain that, whatever comes next for Idina Menzel, it will likely come in the form of yet another pop culture moment – and another resounding crescendo.

Idina Menzel AT Carnegie Hall: December 11, 2019.

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