On her 2001 debut solo album Let Yourself Go, Kristin Chenoweth showcased her Broadway vocal chops, especially on an exceptional performance of Kurt Weill's "I'm a Stranger Here Myself." Let Yourself Go is an amazing disc, recorded on the heels of Chenoweth's Tony Award-winning performance in the 1999 Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. That was just before her multifaceted career went gangbusters, with numerous television gigs (West Wing, Pushing Daisies, her own short-lived series Kristin), film roles (Bewitched, The Pink Panther), a couple more recordings, and her most important Broadway contribution to date, creating the role of Glinda in Stephen Schwartz's Wicked, which earned her still another Tony nomination.
Yet the incredibly gifted actress-singer with the huge vocal range and irresistible personality remains a country girl at heart, and when she hits the TPAC stage next week as a part of her first concert tour, she'll be returning to familiar territory.
"I can't wait to get back to Nashville," Chenoweth tells the Scene. She spent significant time in Music City in 2011 recording her first country album, Some Lessons Learned. Chenoweth also made her Grand Ole Opry debut and sang at TPAC's Fest de Ville gala.
Some Lessons Learned earned a relatively quiet reception, though producer Bob Ezrin nurtured a rich contemporary country-pop sound on the record, which featured front-rank Nashville studio hands such as guitarist Brent Mason, pedal steel player Paul Franklin, bassist Glenn Worf and others. Among the 13 tunes are songs penned by Diane Warren, Dolly Parton and Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott, plus a couple of Chenoweth co-writes, including the whimsical tribute "What Would Dolly Do?"
"The album really wasn't played on country radio," Chenoweth says, "and I know I'm not the next big country star. But I am fortunate that my label [Sony] believes that good music is good music."
As for touring, Chenoweth says she is loving it. She sounds serious about her work and a lot more focused than the flighty persona she sometimes projects on TV talk shows. "I realized that I must do the things that I can do — to say what I want to say — in my own words and music. Every song was chosen for a purpose. It's an eclectic program."
Chenoweth will perform selections from musical theater, opera, her gospel repertoire ("where it all started for me"), and songs from her country album. "Everyone will be entertained," she says confidently.
Chenoweth travels with musical director Mary-Mitchell Campbell and a guitar/bass/drums combo. At each tour stop, eight additional instruments are added to the lineup. Chenoweth will also be accompanied by three singer-dancer-actors who back up the musical numbers and also join her in a few comic scenes.
The multitalented 4-foot-11 force of nature's world tour eventually will include London and Australian dates, but this first American leg concludes with a June 24 performance in her hometown of Broken Arrow, Okla. The city has an impressive 3-year-old performing arts center, and Chenoweth's show is booked into its 1,500-seat theater, which will be renamed in her honor. "That's a little weird," she says, "but as my mom said, 'Oh, Kristin. Just embrace it!' "
Meanwhile, staying healthy in the face of the grind of the road seems to be Chenoweth's biggest current challenge. Asked if she was seeing anybody romantically these days, she answered, "No. I'm just too busy. And I didn't know this was going to turn into TMZ!"
Coincidentally, the lady who "stole" Chenoweth's Wicked Tony, Idina Menzel, is gigging in Nashville at Fontanel on June 16. Which makes this a pretty wicked week for Broadway divas in Music City.
Good night and good luck
Though it isn't produced often, Ralph Pape's Say Goodnight, Gracie mostly holds its own as a period piece.
Jerry, Ginny, Steve, Bobby and Catherine, all about 30 years old, are contemplating their futures and the meaning of life in the 1970s. They're all headed to a high school reunion — only to be delayed by Jerry's growing feelings of inadequacy. (Who wants to go to a high school reunion when your career as an actor sucks?) Out comes the marijuana, and the resultant relaxed atmosphere gives rise to a series of stoned personal confessions and loose-tongued speculations, plus a few tense challenges to long-standing friendships. The dialogue includes references to cultural and political touchstones of the group's formative years: anything from the Cuban Missile Crisis and Woodstock to Edward R. Murrow and Milton Berle.
Under Paul Cook's direction, this essentially plotless exercise gains traction from the cast's focused performances. The statuesque Laura Crockarell enters the action as presumably the least important character — an air-headed flight attendant — but emerges as the one most likely to have embraced her generation's message of peace and love (or at any rate, sexual freedom).
Also giving strong performances are Ryan Williams as the group's scruffy musician; Alan Smith as the bespectacled, always-joking wannabe writer with a plan to place a sitcom idea with Norman Lear; and Melissa Silengo as the chirpy, energetic career secretary who is supportive of all, including significant other Jerry, played by Jeremy Maxwell. Maxwell proves to be the show's weakest link — we sympathize with his insecurities, but there's simply too much whine with his cheese.
The incidental musical selections are a hippie-fest of Hendrix, Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Strawberry Alarm Clock and the like, and set the appropriate mood.
Say Goodnight, Gracie continues through June 24 at Street Theatre Company, 1933 Elm Hill Pike. Also continuing at the venue (Tuesdays, through July 3) is the remounting of the acclaimed Parallel Lives, starring Cathy Street and Holly Allen.