For a bit of time now, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Idina Menzel, she of the soaring vocals that are such a shot of adrenaline in beloved (overrated?) musicals like Rent and Wicked. The first time I saw her perform Wicked‘s signature tune “Defying Gravity” on the Tony Awards (10+ years ago), I got chills and my eyes welled up from the underdog-makes-good vitriol in her delivery. She was the best thing – the much-needed battery acid – in Chris Columbus’ misguided candy-coated film version of Rent. Her sporadic appearances on Glee – as the brilliantly cast mother of All About (Baby) Eve Rachel Berry (Lea Michelle) – were spiky, oddball fun, notably their peculiar duet of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”
However, “Let It Go” (the ubiquitous ditty from Disney’s Frozen) seemed like an underwritten redux of “Defying Gravity” (not her fault of course), and the whole “Adele Dazeem” debacle just got more cloying and unfunny with each passing day (again not her issue … exactly). And the “brand” of Menzel – not unlike that of Wicked co-star Kristin Chenoweth or, for that matter, Audra McDonald or the queen mother of kewpie doll divas Bernadette Peters – suffers from a “gee, aren’t I darling” humblebrag self-absorption and a disingenuous projection of “how did I get here?!” humility that belies the ragingly talented, driven loon lurking underneath.
Blessedly, Menzel’s show last night at Detroit’s Fox Theatre (more or less) stripped away that glossy artifice and laid bare the broken soul with the big voice. It was a revelation.
In her between-song patter, Menzel offered a rambling treatise on her befuddlingly amazing 18-month ride, with epic highs like the runaway success of Frozen and performing on the Oscars and devastating lows like her divorce from Taye Diggs (whom she never mentioned by name). Lest you think she was milking all of this life experience in some kind of self-serving “Oprah” confessional, that was not the vibe at all. Her chatter was too loopy, too heartfelt, too, well, lost to be anything but that of a desperate soul searching for an anchor in a swirling moment of intense success and loss.
She channeled this personal crisis into a fascinatingly raw (and dare I say schizophrenic) array of song choices. Yes, the favorites were all present: “Defying Gravity,” “The Wizard and I,” “For Good” (for which she dropped the mic and used the Fox Theatre’s legendary acoustics to chilling effect), all from Wicked; “Take Me or Leave Me” (which she used as an opportunity to winningly share the stage with many hyperventilating Idina-groupies in the audience) and “No Day But Today” from Rent; and, of course, show-closing “Let It Go,” again sharing the mic with all the wannabe “Elsa”s in the audience (weirdly/delightfully interpolating the song with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ funky classic “Give It Away”?!?!).
The Wicked tunes especially seemed to get a perfunctory, hastened treatment, as if Menzel is as tired of them as we are. She seemed anxious to get to the caustic musical nuggets at the heart of her show, gleefully dropping many f-bombs along the way, hoisting a middle finger to the Disney empire (and all the blue-dressed dollies) that allowed her to mount such an extensive summer tour in the first place. That’s my kind of diva (and I hate that word).
She delivered expected Broadway bon-bons like Funny Girl‘s “Don’t Rain on my Parade” and an Ethel Merman tribute medley (Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy) with powerhouse vocals and a salty element of sad understanding, as if trying to say, “We women have been treated like crap forever, no matter how talented we are. Knock it off!”
The deepest heartache was telegraphed during a one-two punch of the crystalline elegance of Joni Mitchell’s “River” and what could only be described as a “hooker medley” of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and The Police’s “Roxanne.” Both numbers were electrifying, eliciting a hushed awe from the audience. “River” with its repeated chorus of “I wish I had a river I could skate away on” seemed to serve as Menzel’s central thesis. In her introductory remarks to “Love for Sale/Roxanne,” she mentioned a fearsome theatre professor who excoriated her about her performance of the Porter tune, challenging “Do you even know what that song is about?!?!” She wanted us to know – especially juxtaposed with her earlier performance of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” – that, yes, Mr. Man, she does know that the song is about. It was sheer theatrical brilliance.
She performed a number of original works, none of which alas quite held up to the other material, but the punk rock passion with which she delivered the tunes revealed an alternate reality where Idina might have been another Alanis, instead of a wannabe Barbra. She offered If/Then‘s 11 o’clock number of “Always Starting Over” as a fiery yawp over the Sisyphean nature of daily living. Her take on Radiohead’s 90s classic “Creep” was a dizzyingly effective blend of Broadway bombast and grunge existentialism. I would love to have that performance on a permanent loop in my head.
At one point in the show, Menzel joked that, while she’s appreciative of her recent success, “sometimes I just don’t want to let it go.” Some days she just wants to stay in her bed and let the world run its course while she tries to figure out which end is up. Her candor and her authenticity were much appreciated, and, along with her prodigious use of the f-word, just the eye-opening experience all those baby Elsa princesses in the audience needed to hear. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.
BONUS! Enjoy part 1 of my mom Susie Duncan Sexton‘s two-part interview with delightful Patty Hunter on her Patty’s Page TV program. Also in the house are journalist and advocate Terry Doran and my dad Don Sexton. It’s a free-wheeling and fun discussion of politics, small-town living, animal rights (and, yes, pig wrestling), writing, and other insights and adventures. Enjoy! Click here to view.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.