BWW Reviews: New Mom MEGAN HILTY is a 'Smash' Delivering Pop Songs and Standards at the Café Carlyle
I like Megan Hilty because she laughs a lot. She's fun! A young star of stage and screen--having established herself as "Glinda" in Wicked on Broadway (2005-06) and subsequently becoming a TV star playing complicated and talented Ivy Lynn in the NBC hit musical drama Smash--Hilty opened her current run at the Café Carlyle Tuesday night to an excited, adoring audience. On stage with her band, directed by musical savant Matt Cusson--sporting a jaunty Newsies-style cap--at the keyboard (and including her husband Brian Gallagher on guitar, Ryan Hoagland on percussion, and Dennis Michael Keefe on upright bass), Hilty's effervescence was palpable, a heady mixture of genuine glee and sleep deprivation, as she effusively exclaimed her delight at being back at the Carlyle, following her last run when she was six-months pregnant. Now she has an eight-month old daughter. While her initial intention was to create a show about motherhood, the show ended up as a night of standards and Smash selections, giving the people what they know and love.
Taking the stage in a floor length beaded marine blue gown, Hilty was the picture of classic glamour befitting the venue. She opened with the ultimate standard, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Come Rain or Come Shine," a full-throated exultation. She followed with a swinging jazzy rendition of the signature song from Smash, "Let Me Be Your Star". A melding of two Cole Porter songs, "C'est Magnifique" and "I Love Paris," made an inspired paean to her babymoon in the City of Lights, where she and her husband placed a padlock, inscribed with their baby's name, on the Pont des Arts. Hilty joked that her daughter can later feel resentfully obligated to go find it while backpacking through Europe in her 20s "if she's anything like me."
She and husband Brian sang a duet on one of the better songs from Smash, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." It was a sweet sentiment, but his voice was so far outclassed that the song sounded out of balance. Later, Hilty performed a duet with her pianist Cusson on Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," which crackled with playfulness; it felt as though they were inventing their phrasing in response to one another on the spot. Gallagher chimed in with muttered commentary throughout the tune, speaking the thoughts that everyone has when hearing the song (no one says ersters!).
A highlight of the night was Hilty's tender ballad "A Place Called Home" (Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens), which, she relayed, had unexpectedly taken on an entirely new and deeper meaning since giving birth to her child. Her exquisite instrument found a dazzling spectrum of color and contour, moving the audience to rapture and tears. She and the band followed with a lively, impassioned rendition of "Get Happy," the celebratory Arlen/Koehler tune, hoisting us up out of our cozy sentimental puddles. She shared one pop tune from her solo album, It Happens All the Time, a deliciously woeful "Be a Man," showcasing her ambrosial upper register.
She finished out the evening with more standards and Smash hits, first a saucy "Let's Misbehave" (Cole Porter), during which the talented instrumentalists each had a short featured role. "Those solos really should be longer," Hilty remarked afterward. "Y'all play real good!" Agreed. Giving a shout out to her favorite singer Kurt Elling, Hilty sang a languid, sympathetic "Ballad of the Sad Young Men" (Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf). Finishing the program with two songs from Smash, she returned from the now-popular faux'ncore departure (when the star acknowledges that she has to feign ending the show, leaves the stage, and immediately returns to sing another song or two). Hilty invigorated Jule Styne's (with Leo Robin) "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" by unearthing and delighting in clever lesser known verses; it was the perfect marriage of standard and Smash (which depicted the making of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe titled Bombshell), and encapsulated the entire program. The final song of the night was dedicated to her and Gallagher's daughter, "Hopefully sleeping across the park," Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings."
Hilty genuinely seems to enjoy herself while performing, frolicking amongst the band and connecting with the audience as if we were all old pals coming together for a dinner party. She is able to be that special synthesis of absolutely poised and polished while being simultaneously instinctive and natural. The power and artistry of her voice is undeniable, and a pleasure to experience in an intimate, elegant setting such as the Carlyle. Hilty's youthful spirit keeps the room from feeling formal, and in turn that same coltish attitude enlivens the classic material, bringing a soulful bounce to the beloved American songbook.
Hilty and the cast of Smash will be performing songs from the show in a sold-out benefit Bombshell concert (for the Actors Fund) at the Minskoff Theatre on June 8th. Meanwhile, you can catch her doing several of them (including the tour de force "Let's Be Bad") along with her modern take on classic tunes at the Café Carlyle over the next two weeks, Tuesday-Saturdays until May 30. To make reservations, go online at www.ticketweb.com. Café Carlyle is located at 35 East 76th street, at Madison Avenue.
Photos courtesy Michael Wilhoite