BWW Review: AN INTIMATE EVENING WITH KRISTIN CHENOWETH, London Palladium
The words "an intimate evening with" may seem at odds with the cavernous Palladium. But leave it to the pint-sized Broadway legend with the huge voice to work her magic on the space. Somehow, with just a mic and a piano, Kristin Chenoweth put on a spectacular show and simultaneously formed a heartfelt connection with her fans.
It's Chenoweth's ability to thread the needle that makes her such an extraordinary proposition. She's the sunny, ardently Christian, down-home Oklahoma gal who can still bust out a "Hot dang!", and the sophisticated artist with diva flair - the latter delivered with a self-deprecating twinkle.
Last night, she made quips about the perils of mounting a piano in a heavily beaded gown, or sitting down in unbendable sequinned go-go boots, and punctuated operatic high notes with mimed hair flips. It was entirely disarming.
"I'm having a bit of a moment - and I'm not even from here!" she gasped as her entrance was greeted with a rock star-like wall of sound from her appreciative audience. It's just her fourth time performing here, and clearly London wants more of her.
That audience also included numerous industry titans, from Kristin's new bestie Elaine Paige to the collaborators who helped shape her career, including Andrew Lippa and Michael Mayer. (Chenoweth semi-jokingly demanded another project from Mayer to score her a second Tony.)
Of course, Wicked fans won't soon forget Rachel Tucker - an exceptional Elphaba both on Broadway and in the West End - joining Chenoweth on stage to duet on "For Good". These two distinctive, sincere and stirringly soulful artists meeting in song created a musical theatre moment for the ages.
Reflecting Chenoweth's impressive range, her set also included songbook standards from recent studio album The Art of Elegance, through to more contemporary musical theatre and gospel - all connected by a cracking line in vaudevillian patter. A great extended riff early on made it feel almost more like a stand-up show than musical.
Though not overtly political, some of Chenoweth's remarks were pointed. Noting her deep respect for the British royal family, she said she wished the same could be said of America's current equivalent, and on falling in love with a London shop called Liberty, added: "We could use some of that."
It infused several numbers with particular urgency. "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables was introduced with a plea for unity, not division, and really was performed as a prayer. A rousing, first half-closing spiritual, supported by students from Arts Educational Schools London, was similarly framed: faith as inclusive and compassionate, and with shining hope for the next generation.
Chenoweth also has deep respect for the history of her industry, illustrated by wonderful covers of songstresses past. A particular pleasure was her sprightly version of "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart", by another petite wonder: Judy Garland.
The exquisite control of her velvety lyric soprano and lush, emotionally directed phrasing was showcased to the full in Mancini's beloved "Moon River" and Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are". That moment divine indeed.
"I Could Have Danced All Night" was pure joy - and Chenoweth's line that anyone who comes to this country and doesn't sing My Fair Lady should be asked to leave is frankly as good an immigration policy as any. Ditto the effervescently witty "Popular" and "Taylor the Latte Boy", both illustrating her keen facility with lyric as well as melody.
But just as enthralling were the contemplative numbers: Lippa's "Love Somebody Now", deepened with life experience, and an unlikely but brilliantly effective mash-up of country classic "Always on My Mind" with "Losing My Mind" from Follies. That combination seems quintessentially Chenoweth.
Wisely, the production elements were kept fairly simple, with just a few lighting changes and Chenoweth moving from mic stand to handheld, stool to the top of the piano (endearingly aided by a small flight of steps). However, in this stripped-back setting, the sensitive accompaniment of Michael Orland was absolutely crucial.
Solo shows are something of a gamble: there really is nowhere to hide. What shone through in Chenoweth's case was her values - from her beliefs to her championing of women. The recent industry revelations have highlighted an even more urgent need for such solidarity, and it was heartening to hear her pay tribute to others, from Garland and Paige through to current West End Glinda Sophie Evans and Elphaba Alice Fearn.
This was, she revealed, the first time she'd seen Wicked all the way through with new inhabitants of the roles, and watching those women leading a show dedicated to female friendship, love and forgiveness filled her with pride.
The evening's opener was "Should I Be Sweet", which humorously outlines the binaries forced on women: peppy or pure, hot or sweet. By refusing to be pigeon-holed in her career, Chenoweth has developed a phenomenal, inspiring range as an artist and a performer. Hot, sweet and everything in between. Hot dang!