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Idina Menzel in concert: Finally letting go

Broadway star’s concert in San Diego Saturday starts off weak but ends on a strong note

A few songs into Idina Menzel’s concert Saturday, a few high notes had been launched to the high heavens, but something was lacking.

The usually engaging Menzel — star of “Wicked,” “Rent” and the voice behind the ubiquitous “Frozen” anthem “Let It Go” — appeared disengaged, even in the propulsive song “Defying Gravity.” Known for her strong and rich voice, Menzel opened her 16-song set with the signature song from “Wicked.” But in what could have been a powerful opening number, Menzel’s normally robust voice got overpowered by the musicians behind her.

She hit the high notes, for sure, but she seemed like she was holding something back.

At one point, you were quietly wishing, quietly hoping that she would just let it go, let it go, let it go.

Fortunately for the nearly sold-out crowd at the Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theatre, the Tony-winning actress (for the role of Elphaba in “Wicked”) did eventually let it go, and when she did, it was a delight to see and hear.

Halfway through the concert, Menzel admitted she was fighting off a cold, perhaps explaining the initial hesitation. But no matter, as the evening progressed, Menzel took command of the stage. Her voice, at first sounding fragile, grew steadier and stronger, sending notes soaring into the clear San Diego night sky.

She shined in her cover of Barbra Streisand’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” but it wasn’t until she sang the first notes of her sixth song — Joni Mitchell’s “River” — when Menzel finally seemed at ease. Her voice, her charisma, her stage presence — it was a musical trifecta.

An Idina Menzel concert isn’t about flashy stage productions. It’s not about elaborate sets or dance numbers. It’s about the music, and at times Saturday, she was inspired and confident. Just like she did in her cover of “River,” Menzel showed musical depth and breadth in her rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep.”

But it wasn’t a perfect evening. Some songs — like “Still I Can’t Be Still,” from her 1998 debut album — didn’t quite resonate with the audience, a mix of old and young and very young (many were in pretty blue dresses). A few kid-unfriendly words were uttered, one toward the end of an Ethel Merman tribute, when she flubbed the words in a “There’s No Business Like Show Business” / “Anything Goes” / “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” medley.

When the house lights came on for a special rendition of “Let It Go,” she invited many girls and boys to join her near the stage and said: “Oh my gosh, there are so many of you little guys and gals here, and I’ve been cussing up a storm. Sorry mom and dad!”

It was easy to forgive her, though. She could have easily stuck to the script, performing a predictable evening. Her setlist was identical to her Aug. 5 concert in Seattle. But it was her unscripted interaction with the audience that brought many to their feet. She walked up and down the aisles to sing “Take Me or Leave Me” (from “Rent”) with several members of the audience. It was a welcome change of pace, and the unpredictability of the stunt — will they know the words, and will they be good? — made for good theater, so to speak.

When the long-awaited “Let It Go” finally burst out onto the stage — it was her 15th song of the night — everyone suddenly sat up, their eyes glued to the stage, bathed in shimmery hues of whites and blues. You could hear moms and dads waking up the little ones.

Halfway through the song, she asked young members of the audience to join her near the stage. “My choir of Elsas,” she said excitedly. There was something magical at the sight of Menzel, dressed in black, surrounded by smiling young faces, all singing at the top of their lungs.

That appearance of disengagement, that lack of connection that kicked off the evening — they were gone, replaced by poignant moments of spontaneity. She told many stories about her life, even painful ones, briefly alluding to the irony of having such a big year professionally but a dismal year personally. (She and her husband of 11 years, Taye Diggs, divorced last year.)

By night’s end, the concert by one of stage’s strongest singers proved to be a magical evening of songs and stories — imperfect at times but easily redeemed by her candor and charisma.

“I recognize that I’m really lucky,” Menzel said, “that I’ve been given a lot of good songs to sing.”

Many in the audience Saturday were perhaps the lucky ones that Menzel, after a feeble start, finally, finally let it go.

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