Three-time Tony Award nominee Judy Kuhn charmed The Kennedy Center audience last night with her technically impeccable singing, low-key yet welcoming performance style, and sweet stories about milestones in her life and career. Her cabaret performance featured an eclectic mix of rock, jazz, folksy pop, and musical theatre songs (all of which will be recorded for an album due out in the Spring) – many of which explored themes of love and romance and the ups and downs that come with those kinds of relationships. Given the strength of her performance, it is quite easy to see why Barbara Cook chose her to take part in her long-running Kennedy Center cabaret series to showcase known and lesser-known musical theatre talent.
Ms. Kuhn, who is perhaps most famous for voicing Pocahontas in the Disney movie of the same name and playing Cosette in the American premiere of Les Misérables, hit several highlights. The most memorable piece for me was her Stephen Sondheim medley which combined “Happiness” (from Passion) and “In Buddy’s Eyes” (from Follies). Ms. Kuhn performed the role of Fosca in the Kennedy Center’s production of Passion as part of its Sondheim Celebration ten years ago and, given her emotionally-driven performance of “Happiness” last night, I am certain her take on the character must have been something to see. Thankfully, I, as well as others, will have a chance to see her perform the role this winter in New York City in the Classic Stage Company production of the show. I am one of the few Sondheim fans that isn’t all that emotionally attached to Follies, but her rendition of Sally’s iconic song, “In Buddy’s Eyes,” was perhaps one of the best I’ve heard. Never overwrought, it was a great balance of emotion and great singing.
Other memorable songs included Adam Guettel’s “Life is But a Dream” (from the heartbreaking Myths and Hymns) and Nina Simone’s “Forbidden Fruit.” Although different stylistically – one being an emotional musical theatre song and the other being a rather acerbic yet funny jazz song – Ms. Kuhn made each of the songs her own and displayed wonderful song interpretation skills. Likewise, her performance of the encore number, “Someone Else’s Story” (from Andersson/Ulvaeus’ Chess), made it easy to see why the composers wrote the song specifically for her for the American premiere of that rock musical. I’ve heard many, many people sing that song and many of those renditions have been great, but no one, and I mean no one, does it like Judy Kuhn.
Backed by a superb band with Dan Lipton (Music Director) on piano, Damien Bassman on percussion, and Peter Sachon on cello, Ms. Kuhn certainly delivered incredible vocal performances. My only criticism was that the cabaret could have used some more upbeat songs to add a bit more variety. Although I admit I am a theatre junkie, the musical theatre numbers she did perform left me wanting more of that as well. Hmmm, perhaps a future musical theatre cabaret is in order?
Running Time: 65 minutes with no intermission.
Barbara Cook’s Spotlight: Judy Kuhn was a one-night only performance on December 7, 2012 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets to other Kennedy Center theatre performances, including other Barbara Cook Spotlight performances, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.