Idina Menzel FTW!
Indulge me for a moment: I want to call attention to the fact that a visit to Kleinhans for a buzzworthy show is an awesome experience. I’m not even referring to the actual performance by Idina Menzel on Saturday night with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (which was great—more on that in a second)—I mean the whole set-up.
Getting dressed up for a night out. The heavy traffic on Porter Street around Symphony Circle. Walking through those West Side streets, women’s heels clicking on the sidewalk. Joining the flow of people into the Saarinen-designed concert hall. Feeling like you’re stepping back into the 1940s.
A drink in the foyer, quick to finish when the seating bell rings. Find your seat with directions from a dapper usher. All so pleasantly retro. Delightful.
Idina Menzel is a Broadway actress whose celebrity bona fides were established in such high-profile shows as Rent and Wicked. She’s also a legitimate TV star based on her supporting role in Glee. Her appearance as the opening act in the BPO’s 2011-2012 Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Western New York Pops Series drew a house that appeared to be within a few dozen seats of a sellout, and that crowd—bolstered by a heavy teenage and young adult presence—was loud, proud and without reservation in their appreciation.
Menzel burst onstage like a ray of sunshine in her flowing canary-yellow, shoulder-less frock. She opened with “The Life of the Party” from The Wild Party, a production that earned her a Drama Desk nomination in 2000. Following some banter with the audience (including a winning moment in which she hustled to stage left, announcing “I’m going to stand over here, where all these boys are,” drawing a raucous ovation from that group of admirers), she transitioned into “I’m Not That Girl” from Wicked.
Menzel, the original Elphaba in the Broadway and West End productions of the show, was playfully modest.
“Oh, you saw it?” she asked. “I was the green one.”
Menzel then offered a unique medley of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale” and “Roxanne” by The Police, using the selections to frame her soulful vocal phrasing and range. She took advantage of the next piece—“Don’t Rain On My Parade” a tune made famous by Barbara Streisand—to comically frame her native Long Island accent. When she reached the lyric, “Hey Mr. Arnstein, here I am,” she instead sang, “Hey Buffalo, here I am,” and struck a comically triumphant pose. The crowd roared.
Menzel then rolled into “No Day But Today” from Rent. Menzel was part of the original cast of that legendary show and she shared anecdotes from those heady days—meeting her husband (actor Taye Diggs—who is from Rochester, by the way. I did not know that) in the production, backstage shenanigans with Diggs and other cast mates and, on a more somber note, dealing with the death of Rent’s writer / composer Jonathan Larson just before the show was set to open. Her performance of “No Day But Today” was real and raw. The audience exploded when she was through.
And then there was Glee. The mood lightened considerably as Menzel, who plays vocal coach Shelley Corcoran on the hit show, discussed her first duet with co-star Lea Michele and then led the BPO through that particular song: Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”
“I’m so sorry,” she told the orchestra. “You probably went to Julliard, and here you are, playing this.”
The crowd loved the restructured version of the song, of course, and was equally pleased when Menzel offered examples of lullabies she and Diggs had created for their infant son—a hip-hop number about poop and a swinging wake-up song were particularly well-received. Menzel burst into a Louis Prima number, “I Feel So Smootchie,” that ended with such a flourish that pockets of the audience gave Menzel a standing ovation.
“Thank you so much,” she said. “I’m not even from Buffalo, and you all came here to see me.”
Menzel then closed her performance a powerful a capella version of “For Good” from Wicked—you could have heard a pin drop in the hall—and when she finished, Kleinhans went bananas. The young men next to me kept gasping “Oh my God. Oh my God.”
“I was going to ask them if they were OK,” my wife told me after the show.
Menzel left stage to a roaring standing ovation, then popped back out for a quick version of “Tomorrow” that she dedicated to her mother. She disappeared, finally, to another round of wild applause. Menzel had won the evening.