BWW Reviews: Idina Menzel – Barefoot and Firmly Centre Stage in Melbourne
Around halfway through Idina Menzel’s Melbourne concert on Sunday night it strikes me that there must have been a few people from Long Island scratching their heads back in the day. It might have been a wedding they were guests at, or perhaps a Bar Mitzvah, one just like any of the others they compulsorily attended in the 1980s. Except this time there was something different about the girl who was fronting the band. Maybe it was when she snuck in a plaintive jazz standard between the Whitney and Miami Sound Machine numbers. Maybe it was a little moment, after some enforced Michael Jackson moves, when she forgot where she was, when she opened up that voice, just for a second or two, and unleashed a note that reverberated across the room. Maybe one of the guests simply had an ear for talent, for the kinds of voices that belonged in those famous theatres just across the river. And so they shook their head and thought What was that?! before they dutifully lined up for cake, or the bouquet, and secretly wished that the kid with the mop of curly dark hair would keep singing instead.
These imagined scenes come to me as Idina jokes with the audience at Hamer Hall about her wedding singer experiences as a teenager, demonstrating the hokey choreography and inappropriateness of the song lyrics she was required to sing all over Long Island. Because it’s seems impossible to consider Idina Menzel not ever holding a crowd the way she does tonight, impossible to consider that voice as being relegated to the background. It’s my one coherent thought for the night before I go back to my combination of crying, clapping, and holding my breath – a sequence that began as soon as the sublime 55-piece Melbourne Pops Orchestra, led by an elegant Vanessa Scammell, began the first bars of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and Idina the voice preceded Idina the woman, onto the stage.
I can’t speak for how many other people use the holding of breath technique to ward off out-loud sobs, but I can say for sure that I was joined in the crying and the clapping stages by one of the most rowdy, appreciative Melbourne audiences I’ve ever encountered. From the WIZARD OF OZ/WICKED opening number right through the encores, the gorgeously refurbished Hamer Hall resounded with appreciation for the Broadway legend in this, her first Melbourne show, and the last concert of her first ever Australian tour. Telling us she had in fact saved the best for last, Idina kept to her promise, performing for a full two hours without intermission, her voice never losing any of its power or purpose throughout.
With a set-list that ranged from Joni Mitchell, to Cole Porter, to Lady Gaga, the thread for the evening was the earnest, earthiness of Idina herself. Barefoot, she has a loose-limbed, almost self-conscious presence on stage when she’s telling her stories. Something visibly changes when she sings, when she digs in and delivers a song, but it’s that earthiness that anchors each performance. The girl who cut her teeth on wedding songs has eliminated any schmaltz from her repertoire, and what you get as her audience is a genuine, playful performer who swears, flirts and goes off on her tangents – before she swings back around to once again slay you with that voice.
Standouts for me on the night included the soft, flickering-flame loveliness of No Day But Today from RENT, and of course her WICKED showstopper, Defying Gravity, along with a delicate and personal unmiked version of For Good from the same show. There were also some truly wonderful moments watching fans interact with their idol, especially when a plucky few were selected from the audience to duet with Idina on Take Me Or Leave Me. It is here that you really see it, the impact that music can have on young people in particular. They light up. They get brave after a few hesitant notes, and then they let go. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, as endearing as it is entertaining, and Idina came off as proud Mama, watching her young fans revel in their spotlight. It was also a treat to watch her kick back and sing off against her close friend and WICKED co-star Helen Dallimore when she joined Idina on the stage for a lusty close-out on the RENT duet.
At the risk of choosing every song (okay, let me just add that Both Sides Now was stunning, as were two original compositions by Idina and a new song from the upcoming musical If/Then), it was Idina’s honest and heartfelt tribute to her friend, the late, great Marvin Hamlisch with What I Did For Love from A CHORUS LINE, and her closing number, the achingly beautiful Somewhere from WEST SIDE STORY that really brought on the tears. They’re both songs we’ve heard a thousand times before, but on Sunday night their familiarity only added to their impact. They are songs that somehow belong to the audience, yet can renew in the hands of a master – those rare creatures who make magic with their voices, who can change your night (and sometimes even your life) when they stand on a stage and sing.
Which brings me back to my one coherent thought. It’s impossible to believe Idina Menzel ever sang in the background. Impossible. She has a voice and heart that fills the room, a voice and heart that brought more than 2,000 people to their feet on Sunday night. Over, and over again. So many of us thinking What was that?! as we wiped away tears or clapped till our palms bruised.
Only, these days, we know her name. And we know just how lucky we are to have had Idina Menzel sing for us, if only for one night.
Be sure to return to Oz, Ms Menzel!