Review: Ailing throat doesn’t stop incandescent Kristin Chenoweth from dazzling with vocal versatility

June 25, 2012

Kristin Chenoweth: just a girl from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

Singer Kristin Chenoweth’s Friday-night Atlanta debut at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre was touch and go, due to a tracheal infection that forced her to cancel shows in Chicago, Minneapolis and Nashville. Fans finally got word Thursday via her Twitter account that she was packed and coming.

And show up she did. Like the Broadway pro she is, Chenoweth held back nothing vocally. A strategically placed bottle of hand sanitizer atop the Steinway behind her was a reminder of her recent sick leave, as was the frequent and hilarious application of it to her hands, arms, lips and co-stars throughout the three-hour show.

The theater was packed, buzzing with enthusiasm, and it was clear that Chenoweth’s following is as diverse as the repertoire she performed. One could make the case that the show lacked musical cohesion. But with her adept artistic team — stage director Richard Jay-Alexander and music director Mary Mitchell Campbell — Chenoweth worked hard to create an autobiographical representation of the music that resonates best with her sensibilities. The selections included four songs from her country-pop album “Some Lessons Learned,” released late last year; her signature musical theater number, “Popular,” from “Wicked,” but sung in Japanese for kicks; and that fabulous Barbra Streisand-Donna Summer duet from the album “Wet” — “No more tears / Enough is enough” — that I adored as a kid. Many of the numbers were choreographed with fellow Broadway artists: Chelsea Packard, Will Taylor and Atlanta native Tyler Hanes. Multi-talented, they served as backup singers, dancing cowboys or duet partners.

As a girl in rural Oklahoma, Chenoweth was a disciple of the Broadway cast recordings she played and replayed on her cassette player. She is a singer with formidable stage and screen credits who defies classification. She’s like a 300-watt light bulb, radiant and delightfully over the top.

Ultimately, she has mastered the art of caricature. She can play sentimental, sexy or sassy. She can summon a legitimate operatic voice and sing the music of Jerome Kern or interpolate a stunning high C into any song. She can belt out “Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret” — not exactly like Liza Minnelli in Bob Fosse’s 1972 movie, but pretty impressive for a 4-foot-11 soubrette. She can even do a great version of Madeline Kahn’s “I’m Tired” from “Blazing Saddles.”

She did all of that Friday night, interspersing the hypochondriac Kristin character that she created at intervals. She even worked an audience member’s marriage proposal into the show during the second half.

From the exhaustive song list, two stood out as most provocative and passionate: the 1854 Stephen Foster song “Hard Times Come Again No More” and Sandi Patty’s “Upon This Rock.” Clearly they were chosen for deep-seated personal reasons and were unexpected within the context of the show.

The Foster song is traditionally regarded as one about political protest and economic difficulty. The lyrics are poignant: “While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay, there are frail forms fainting at the door.…” Later Chenoweth prefaced “Upon This Rock” with transparency, dedicating it to those who share her Christian faith and bidding “Shalom!” to the rest, assuring them that it would be over in four minutes. The Atlanta crowd didn’t seem offended and, in fact, gave Chenoweth a standing ovation for both her artistry and her authenticity.

Chenoweth will continue her concert tour Sunday, stopping in her hometown of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, just outside Tulsa. Then she’ll double back to those cities she missed the first time around.

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