BWW Reviews: National Symphony Orchestra Concert at Wolf Trap, WICKED DIVAS, Features Two of the Best on Broadway
Stephen Schwartz's Wicked is a bit of a juggernaut. It's now famous worldwide and even the teenager who eschews showtunes for the likes of Beyoncé probably has seen the show and/or may have the cast recording. For the Broadway beltress, the show also offers something a little bit more than a steady job thanks to the popularity. It features one of the great 'diva' roles for contemporary musical theatre in the form of the misunderstood green witch, Elphaba. Two lucky women who played the role both on tour and on Broadway, Tony nominee Stephanie J. Block and Julia Murney (last seen at Signature Theatre in the Kander and Ebb revue First You Dream) shared some of the songs from the show - as well as other songs for powerful women - last night at Wolf Trap.
Wicked Divas, which also included the exquisite National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) under the direction of the always enjoyable to watch Steven Reineke, proved to be a delight for Broadway fanatics (including, yes, those 'Wickedheads') and those who simply enjoy hearing good music under the stars.
While I was slightly disappointed that the selections for the program were mostly standard, well-known pop and Broadway fare because I live for lesser known showtunes and see these events as a means to expose them to the masses, the NSO - along with soloists Block and Murney - executed all of them superbly. From the instrumental pieces (the opener, featuring songs from Gypsy, was a highlight) to the ones featuring Block and Murney's stellar voices, there was something for every taste. Allow me to share a few I thought were among the highlights.
I've been a fan of Stephanie J. Block since her days in The Boy from Oz with Hugh Jackman and have seen her in every Broadway show she's done. While I thought something from the short-lived The Pirate Queen, in which she starred as fierce female pirate Grania, would have been well-suited to a musical event celebrating strong women, I must say the solos she did have demonstrated her versatility very well.
She proved she can belt showy numbers in a way that rivals Streisand herself with Jule Styne's "Don't Rain on My Parade" from Funny Girl. She's been doing this number for years, but I think it gets even better - if one can imagine - with time. She shared her legit vocal stylings with Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Think of Me" (from The Phantom of the Opera) lending credence to the fact that she can pretty much sing anything extraordinarily well.
No concert featuring the ladies from Wicked would be complete without Elphaba's anthem from that show "Defying Gravity." Let's just say I've heard this number done more times than I care to admit thanks to the fact that the show reminds me of my relationship with my little sister - from the original Broadway cast, replacement casts, tours, concerts and cabarets - and her rendition is among my top two. There are no excessive riffs that make the song seemingly unrecognizable. There's powerful emotion, but not so much that it comes off as insincere. Most of all, it's technically well sung with no screeching to be found.
Julia Murney is no slouch in the belting department either, of course. This concert allowed her to also show off her well-honed comedic chops. Hearing her sing the Kander and Ebb song written especially for Liza, "Ring Them Bells," never gets old no matter how many times I hear it. She always seems to add something new. That's the mark of a great stage performer.
She mixed her fierce belting with comedic timing as she took on "Diva's Lament" (from Spamalot) and showed her tender side with one of my favorite contemporary musical theatre songs, Ahrens and Flaherty's "Back to Before" (from Ragtime). Julia also took her turn as Glinda - as the result of losing a coin toss to Stephanie - and did an interesting take on "Popular" from Wicked. As she admits, she's certainly better suited to taking on Elphaba's songs, but she gave this one her all and was hilarious to boot.
However, the highlight (for this musical theatre junkie) was the encore. Russell and Krieger's Side Show is among the most underappreciated musicals in recent decades so I was delighted when Ms. Murney and Ms. Block took on the heart-wrenching "I Will Never Leave You" from that show. Simply sung with palpable emotion, it was one to remember not only for their performances, but that of the orchestra. You simply don't get to hear that song with a full orchestra much in smaller regional theater productions of the show and certainly not an orchestra as tremendously on point as the NSO.
Running Time: Two hours and 5 minutes with one intermission.
Wicked Divas was a one-night-only performance at Wolf Trap on July 28, 2013.
Graphic: Courtesy of NSO.