When last we saw Idina Menzel—at House of Blues Cleveland in 2008—she was best known as Elphaba from Wicked, and “Defying Gravity” was her most popular tune.
Now the native New Yorker is better known as Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. And her most familiar song is….
Oh, c’mon. You know. Your kids (and everyone else’s) have been singing it ever since the film’s Thanksgiving release two years ago.
Isn’t that why you brought the little princess out to Blossom Music Center on Friday? Who wouldn’t love a bit o’ movie music and show tune magic on a picturesque summer night outdoors and under the stars with Menzel? The Tony-winner’s golden voice and glamour model good looks have transformed her from wicked witch into benevolent, computer-animated ice queen—and rendered her the preeminent “rock star” of theatergoers everywhere, on Broadway and at the suburban multiplex.
We dig Fiddler on The Roof and The Sound of Music as much as the next von Trapp, but we’re not exactly on Playbill’s subscription list. We’re fairly certain most of the 6,000 packing the Cuyahoga Falls pavilion aren’t, either.
But with Menzel, that sort of hoity-toity pretense goes out the window. She’s evolved from Rent costar to sometime Glee cameo, from an eager understudy to superstar cinema singer. She’s successfully crossed over to mainstream, resurrecting old-school torch songs for today’s audiences and converting cartoon cantos into platinum records.
Ask any eleven-year old girl on hand for Menzel’s August 21st concert and they’ll tell you: Idina is just the best. Like cool big sister to aspiring chanteuses the world over.
We never doubted Menzel’s talent, having caught her live act already and heard enough of her songs on television and radio (whether we wanted to or not) to appreciate her pipes. But we wondered going into the Ohio gig whether that wow factor (and lungpower) would translate to a large venue, and whether the Tisch-trained headliner could sustain interest for a ninety-minute solo show.
Oh, we of little faith.
Menzel mesmerized from opener to finale, charming onlookers young and old (9 to 90) with her ebullient melodies and good humor. A hospitable hostess, she recognized that this was a first-time concert experience for most of the kiddies in attendance, and—notwithstanding a couple F-bombs—went out of her way to make them feel welcome. She joked,laughed off a few unscripted moments, and stooped to speak with youngsters. She ventured into the aisles for a singing partner, and—later—invited a few lucky kids onstage to share her spotlight.
Like a fairy godmother, Idina made a few dreams come true.
Heck, she even tossed in a couple ‘80s and ‘90s pop covers for the soccer moms and dads.
Appearing (twenty minutes late) on a staircase at center stage in a black dress (with gilded wrap-around sarong), the newly-blondish Menzel soared on flighty, Stephen Schwartz-penned “Gravity,” then eased into Funny Girl standard “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
A fan proffered a white rose to the singer early on. When Menzel noticed said fan’s absence, she had a bit of fun with it:
“Oh, that’s it? She left?” she queried. “What? She’s smoking a f-cking cigarette?
Menzel also wondered aloud about the number of straight males in attendance. She said she relishes the support and adulation of the gay community:
“They make me feel better about myself,” she reported. “They tell me I have beautiful hair and a great ass!”
We respectfully concur, but it was high-powered Menzel’s (mezzo) soprano that kept listeners enraptured and entertained. Roaming the expanse of the stage with a wireless mic—sometimes crouching or kneeling with legs tucked in—Idina crooned and belted, her notes echoing through the valley. Her range (husky to heavenly) was wide, her control masterful, her vibrato and inflection sublime. And Menzel’s ability to hold the final notes of some songs indefinitely was mind-blowing.
Menzel’s fifteen-piece band was part orchestra, part rock ensemble: Piano, strings (violins, cello) and horns (trumpet, trombone, saxophone) kept the mix rooted firmly in the symphonic world, but the electric guitar, bass, synth, and drums gave the tunes a contemporary edge. Idina introduced everyone later (engineers and personal assistants, too), but we couldn’t keep track of the names, but we recognized pianist / conductor Clifford Carter from his work with James Taylor, Art Garfunkel, and Bette Midler.
Another empty seat down front prompted further investigation, with the self-deprecating singer joking that she’d probably dwell on the absence the rest of the night. She didn’t, of course, returning to business with Glen Ballard’s “Brave,” and the title cut from 2008’s I Stand.
Menzel sang Joni Mitchell’s “River” (from last year’s Holiday Wishes) while seated on a stool, infusing the holiday number with enough melancholy and soul to rival (if not surpass) Robert Downey, Jr.’s version from Ally McBeal. “The Wizard and I” was another Wicked highlight.
Idina sent Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” out to a former NYU vocal coach (on whom she had a crush)—and teasingly slipped off her gold wrap whilst vamping to and fro. In one of the night’s several surprises, she juxtaposed said desperate girl piece with another popular prostitute song—“Roxanne” by The Police—as red lights flickered in the background. She dedicated a mid-show medley of Irving Berlin’s “No Business Like Show Business,” Porter’s “Anything Goes,” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” to her childhood idol, Ethel Merman. The poly-rhythmic “Still I Can’t Be Still” (from the similarly named 1998 CD) saw Idina kick off her heels and dance in circles.
Radiohead’s “Creep” would seem an odd song choice at first blush, but Idina killed with the brooding Pablo Honey smash. She said she identified with its lyrics, and how they spoke to people who feel different or ostracized.
“They harness that energy and reflect it back into the world,” marveled Menzel.
Donning a pair of furry yellow slippers, Idina ventured offstage and snagged a few random partners to “help” her with Rent’s “Take Me Or Leave Me.” We thought the first candidate, Amanda, did a great job. The second—Kevin—compensated for his lack of pitch with his enthusiasm. Carl and Aiden tag-teamed a couple verses onstage together, with Menzel sandwiched between them. It wasn’t the evening’s most musically pure segment, but it was a hell of a lot of fun.
Idina became serious again for “No Day But Today,” which she offered as a prayer of thanks to Rent creator Jonathan Larson—who sadly passed when his show opened. The poignant carpe diem track segued seamlessly into the recent “Always Starting Over” (from Menzel’s latest play, If / Then). Wicked’s “For Good” was a spine-tingling a cappella; Menzel gave her troupe a well-deserved respite following band introductions.
Rounding out the run of self-affirmative anthems, the obligatory “Let It Go” was to blue and white lights and wintery LCD video screens. But Idina paused after the second chorus.
“I think I need some helpers on this one,” she smiled invitingly. “Helpers about this tall.”
And with that, every little princess in the pavilion flocked to a staircase at stage right and surrounded their heroine as moms and dads looked on (or busted out their iPhones). There wasn’t enough space to accommodate the classroom’s worth of kids, so Menzel had the musicians reprise the “I don’t care what they say” refrain three or four times, rotating small groups of girls so everyone got a chance at the mic.
It was definitely an aw, shucks, Polaroid kind of moment for parents, and a winning touch for an already-spectacular show. The Annie-inspired encore of “Tomorrow” sent tots home with their guardians (or grandparents) with permanent smiles—and the sugar-sweet sense memory satisfaction of a classic Disney picture.
Menzel’s current World Tour commenced in the Far East (Japan, Korea) and Philippines back in June, then jumped the pond to the U.K. She wraps her run of American dates at the end of this month, and we can’t suggest strongly enough that fans in the remaining markets snatch up tickets now.
Idina’s itinerary also lists a handful of shows in Canada, followed by a tour-capper in L.A. in October.