BWW Review: KRISTIN CHENOWETH: FOR THE GIRLS at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
The sunshine state always shines a little brighter when Kristin Chenoweth is in the house. The house being Sarasota's "purple palace", the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, where Executive Director Mary Benzel and crew are celebrating the theater's 50th year on the Bay. In celebration, they are pulling out all the stops, hosting a banner year of phenomenal talent and entertainment.
If you're going to celebrate that big, then you have to bring Kristin Chenoweth to the party. It may have been a bit of a chilly and windy day outside in Sarasota for this time of year, but inside the temperature was sizzling hot when Kristin took over the stage in a shiny dress with layers of silver fringe. And she knew how to shimmy that fringe. Work it, girl!
Introducing us to her latest album, "For the Girls", Kristin opened her show with two dynamic female singers; Crystal Monee Hall and Marissa Rosen who she let shine throughout the concert. Move over Elsa, before "Let It Go" there was Helen Reddy's anthem which was wayyyyy ahead of its time titled "I'm a Woman" and Kristen, Crystal and Marissa made it their own - confident, soulful, powerful. I think we could have gone home happy at that point, but the "girls" were performing for another 80 minutes and the full house decided to stay for every last note.
One clever part of the show featured a song written by Mary-Mitchell Campbell who often tours with Kristin as her musical director. The song was taken from a text Mary wrote to Kristin and quickly runs through a chorus of netspeak highlighting emojis, hashtags, acronyms and abbreviations.
How nice to see Michael Orland, the associate musical director from American Idol for 16 seasons, sitting at the piano tickling the ivories in accompaniment and at the helm as musical director. Trading occasional banter with Kristin was sweet and playful.
In tribute to her father and all great fathers out there, Kristin sang her touching rendition of "Fathers & Daughters", giving notice to a friend in the audience present with her father. Kristin was quick to find her musical theater students in the audience, addressing them throughout her show with stories and advice. One in particular stayed with me and is wise council for all of us, "Lead with your ability!" When she said that I found myself reflecting; in a society overrun with meanness, body shaming and intolerance of all sorts, leading with your ability can create a positive refocus.
Speaking of positive focus, Kristin absolutely let Marissa and Crystal take the center stage and run with it. Refusing to call them "backup singers" or keep them tucked away in the shadows, Kristin graciously encouraged these ladies spread their wings and show the world what Kristin saw in them. Both powerful vocalists, soloists and entertainers, they surprised Kristin with a duet of "Natural Woman" while she sat out of the spotlight and reeled like a proud mama, watching her kiddos. And the kiddos did her proud, delivering impassioned and compelling vocals. At the end of their duet, Kristin collapsed to the floor. I know Miss Aretha was smiling looking over the balcony of Heaven. Kristin was quick to give Carol Burnett credit for telling her, "Always be able to celebrate others!" Celebrating others continued when a musical theater student, Miss Pipa von Kessel, from @sarasotahighschooltheatre, took to the stage to sing an unrehearsed version with Kristin of "For Good" from Wicked. She was poised and charming with a beautiful voice and didn't miss a beat. Lookout Broadway, Pipa's coming after ya!
Part of Kristin's charm and why I love "cabaret" style shows, is the way the performers interact with their audience. Here's where Kristin shines. Not everyone can pull that off, but when it's done well with a touch of storytelling and a sense of humor, it makes for a well-rounded evening of entertainment. Before "bubbling" off on "Popular" Glinda's anthem that Kristin introduced on Broadway to Wicked fans, she told a fable about calling up Meghan Markle to offer advice on how to move forward in her new lifestyle and how to become more popular. The audience got a great chuckle from that and then were treated to, "toss toss", that iconic song we all wanted her to sing.
In a previous interview I asked Kristin why she chose the songs that were on this new album. She told me it was not only a way to pay tribute to the "girls" in the music industry that inspired her, but it was a way to thank and remember friends and family members who introduced those women and their songs to her. The show is brimming with simplistic, piano-driven arrangements such as "The Way We Were", "You Don't Own Me" and of course Dolly's "I Will Always Love You". The trio sang a reverent "Hallelujah" that was simply spiritual.
Like Miss Chenoweth who is diverse in many gifts and talents, "For The Girls", the album, and the concert, is graced with a diversity of styles and music genres from Streisand to Ronstadt and Dolly to Garland - something for everyone and a tribute to the best.
For more about Miss Chenoweth visit: www.officialkristinchenoweth.com
Giving opportunities: www.officialkristinchenoweth.com/4good
Photo credit: Gian Andrea di Stefano
To learn more about the Van Wezel and their upcoming season of entertainment visit: www.vanwezel.org
Link to previous interview with Miss Chenoweth: