Review: Idina Menzel fills theater with voice and personality
Idina Menzel is playing bigger venues since her five-times-platinum breakthrough with the Disney ballad “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” And for her, she said, the challenge on the road that brought the Broadway star to Phoenix Sunday lies in her keeping the vibe of the concerts as intimate as it was before she had a mainstream pop hit to close out the show.
But by the time she’d shifted gears from leading the crowd in a spirited call-and-response on a heartfelt “No Day But Today” from “Rent” into sharing a personal note about how immersing herself in the beauty of her latest Broadway hit, “If/Then,” had helped her through some tougher times by way of introducing “Always Starting Over,” it didn’t feel much like a challenge.
Menzel’s voice is definitely big enough to fill the room, as she displayed throughout the Comerica Theatre show, from those towering notes on the powerful climax that ended the opening song, “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked” to her emotional encore of “Tomorrow” from “Annie,” a “song that I used to sing when as a little girl,” as she explained.
And Menzel’s personality is just as big – and just as big a factor in drawing audiences into her performance, often literally. She had a running joke with a guy down front named Chris after making a joke about his date not showing up when she noticed there was no one in the seat beside him. “Maybe I was projecting my own relationship problems on to you,” she joked.
Menzel handed the spotlight off to several members of the audience to try their luck at lead vocals on “Take Me or Leave Me” from “Rent.” And when it came time for her mainstream breakthrough, “Let it Go,” she sat on the edge of the stage, surrounded by a handful of her youngest fans, sharing the mic and encouraging the kids to try it one more time “’cause I don’t think the adults are sick of this song.”
All those years on Broadway may have given her an edge in terms of seeming like a natural on stage. But it never felt like acting. It felt like sharing, which she did with warmth and humor.
Backed by 15 musicians, including horns, a string quartet and woodwinds, Menzel touched on the songs from her career-defining Broadway shows – and “Frozen,” naturally—as well as highlights of her studio releases, included a breathtaking version of “Brave” on which she powered through the key change (this despite congestion) and “I Stand.”
And that still left plenty of time for some well-chosen covers. Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” was performed as a medley with “Roxanne” by the Police and set up with a charming anecdote about her performing the song for a college professor in her song interpretation class at NYU. She was crushing on the teacher, who’d assigned them to select a Porter song to sing in class. “Why not kill two birds?,” Menzel joked. “I’ll seduce my teacher and fulfill the assignment at the same time. She took on “River” by one of her “all-time favorite artists,” Joni Mitchell, and turned in a tortured rendition of “Creep” by Radiohead because for all her empowerment anthems, Menzel told us, there are days “when I wake up in the morning and I don’t feel like getting out of bed,” days when “I don’t feel like singing ‘Let it Go.'”
Other highlights included a rousing rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl,” a three-song Ethel Merman tribute (“There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Anything Goes” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”) and, from “Wicked,” “The Wizard and I” and a sweet a cappella rendition of “For Good.”
Menzel was in powerful voice throughout, although she clearly seemed to feel that congestion was taking her off her game. And those amazing pipes will always be among the first things people mention. She’s a force of nature, after all. But for Menzel, it’s just as much about connecting with the audience. And the fact that she can offer both — great vocals and that natural connection with her fan base — is what elevates her to another class of entertainer.