Kristin Chenoweth Brings Her Musical Magic to the Center
By Libby Slate
Kristin Chenoweth is on her way to the airport to catch yet another flight. This time she's headed from visiting family in Oklahoma City to Walt Disney World for an event. Then it's off to Indianapolis for a concert tour date, then home to New York City for Thanksgiving.
That's just a small slice of the schedule for this peripatetic performer, who plays Segerstrom Hall March 12, bringing with her a twelve-piece orchestra, a collection of songs old and new and, of course, that miraculous multi-octave voice. It surges from her petite 4'11" frame and can move effortlessly from Jerome Kern to Dolly Parton and a host of other composers.
Her concert tour began last August and runs through May. "That word, 'tour' …," she says by phone from the car. "I hesitated when that came up. I'm always doing dates. I have dates up to 2018."
There's not a trace of immodesty in her tone; she's merely stating a fact of life for one of the most gifted artists working today. Last year, besides her concert dates, she co-hosted the Tony® Awards—and was nominated for the revival of On the Twentieth Century—co-hosted a Thanksgiving Day television special Broadway at the White House, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, starred as Maleficent in the Disney Channel's musical telefilm Descendants, introduced the 60th anniversary theatrical release of the Rodgers and Hammerstein film Oklahoma! and even guest-starred on The Muppets.
At Segerstrom Hall, Chenoweth—herself a Tony winner for the 1999 revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and an Emmy® winner for Pushing Daisies—will perform some selections from her DVD/CD Coming Home, which captured a performance she gave at the Kristin Chenoweth Theatre at the Broken Arrow Performing Arts Center in her hometown of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; the theater had been re-named in her honor in 2012.
The song list, which might also include such non-Coming Home selections as "Moon River" or "It’s a Quiet Thing" from Broadway's Flora the Red Menace, changes from concert to concert, so the Segerstrom roster isn't yet set. "I learn and put in new music all the time," Chenoweth says. "So some is the same, some different—hopefully, all of it is entertaining! It runs the gamut, my show. Musical theater, legit, country, standards … all of it!"
Whatever the genre, it's a song's lyrics that count most with Chenoweth. "It's the lyric that speaks to me," she says. " 'Smile' "—referring to the song from the Charlie Chaplin film classic Modern Times—"How many times have we heard that? No matter what, if you lift your head up and smile when you're down … I love the message of a song. Even if someone may not relate to it, maybe they’ll accidentally enjoy it."
Not that Chenoweth's preaching—though she does sing the hymn "Upon This Rock," preceded by the quip, "For those of you who don't believe in Jesus, it's over in four minutes." There's lots of humorous patter, even some political comedy. Her songs do tap into deeply felt emotions, in part because of the way she delivers them—throwing her body into the music, caressing a lyric quietly if that’s what the song calls for, or exploding with joyful operatic power as a finale flourish.
At a recent evening at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, she lifted herself off the stage in a just-can't-help-it jump during "Maybe This Time" from Cabaret. In the Dolly Parton song "Little Sparrow," she held the microphone while almost in a backbend. And in almost every song, her hands and arms had their own choreography, bringing out the words and rhythmic beats of the number.
"Ninety-nine percent of that is who I am; it's not planned," Chenoweth notes. "I always say, if I didn't have hands and arms, I don't know if I could sing. It's my whole body, from head to toe, though there are a couple of songs where it doesn't feel comfortable for me to move. I think that's why I'm so tired after a performance."
It could also be that she tends to make full use of the stage and elsewhere—there may be a surprise or two at Segerstrom—displaying an ease of movement that's a hallmark of the accomplished Broadway performer she is. Two songs from her Tony-nominated role as the good witch Glinda in the still-running Broadway hit Wicked—the tongue-in-cheek fun of "Popular" and the heart-tugging emotion of "For Good"—are audience favorites.
With "For Good," she invites an audience member, usually a stranger, to the stage to join her in the duet of love, forgiveness and farewell. "To me, that song does what musical theater does best, at its highest level," Chenoweth says. "It does perfectly what it's supposed to do for the characters; it moves the show along, and it can be sung between two people—it can be brothers, or best friends. I’m so glad I was a part of that show."
The airport is nearing; it's time to wrap up. Earlier, Chenoweth had said, "I'm so lucky I get to do this music." And we're lucky, too, that we get to hear it.
Libby Slate is a frequent contributor to Center publications.
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