Heidi Blickenstaff at Signature Theatre’s ‘Autumn Cabaret Festival’ by Derek Mong

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After seeing Heidi Blickenstaff perform alongside Patina Miller, James Clow, Alan H. Green, Patina Miller, and Matthew Scott, last year in the Kennedy Center’s production of First You Dream: The Music of Kander & Ebb—which originally premiered at the Signature Theatre in 2009—I was ecstatic to learn that Blickenstaff would be part of this season’s ‘Autumn Cabaret Festival.” Singing everything from pop ballads to Broadway standards, Blickenstaff brought the entire audience to their feet with a standing ovation (and two encores) at the Signature Theatre’s ARK Theatre last night.

Heidi Blickenstaff.
Heidi Blickenstaff.

Blickenstaff, who calls DC her second theatre home, starred in the musical Meet John Doe at Ford’s Theatre, winning a Helen Hayes Award for her performance. Blickenstaff is also well known for her performances on Broadway as Ursula in The Little Mermaid and Susan Hershey in The Full Monty. Recently, she also played Alice Beineke in The Addams Family and Diana in Next to Normal at the Weston Playhouse. Perhaps Blickenstaff is most widely known for her role as the co-creator of the Tony Award nominated musical [Title of Show], which is performed by theatre groups worldwide.

Blickenstaff—who performed a cabaret at Signature Theatre last year focusing on her major career accomplishments—began the evening by explaining that she structured this cabaret around major pieces of work she performed over the course of the past six months. Although Blickenstaff did humorously fumble some of the lyrics, her graceful stage presence, quick wit, and enchanting sense of humor made it all seem part of the routine—giving the cabaret performance a degree of rawness and authenticity that made it all the more enjoyable. As she delved into the mellifluous harmonious of some of the most iconic Broadway showtunes with her pianist and Music Director Ryan Fielding Garrett, she intermixed hilarious stories about her experiences working in the Broadway industry with a clever mix of songs that not only showcased emotional depth and vocal range, but also the breadth of work she has had the opportunity to perform.

The set, which included only a piano stage left and a single microphone in the center of the stage surrounded by a pool of light, was the perfect environment for Blickenstaff to shine. One of the most enjoyable songs of the evening was her performance of “April in Paris,” a song composed by Vernon Duke in the original Broadway musical Walk A Little Faster. Blickenstaff also tenderly performed “I Miss the Mountains” from Next to Normal—masterfully telling the agonizing story of a woman suffering with bipolar disorder. Both performances demonstrated Blickenstaff’s mastery of stage—using inflections in her voice to demonstrate emotional depth without ever leaving her stool. The flickering candlelight dotting the room made a perfect backdrop for Blickenstaff’s warm, yet intentionally chilling, performance.

Blickenstaff also performed a number of pieces in character that were truly the gems of the evening for the musical theatre nerds (like myself) in the room. Although Blickenstaff noted hilariously that she was too young/pretty and an “Annie” at heart, she took on the role of Miss Hannigan in performing the iconic “Little Girls.” Hilariously, one of Blickenstaff’s first roles was Annie in the Good Company Players, so her vehement reluctance to perform a role that she was “totally wrong for” was ironically matched by theatrical brilliance as she nailed the nuances of Miss Hannigan’s raspy vocals. Blickenstaff also performed a piece from a new musical by John Kander and Greg Pierce, entitled Kid Victory, in which she plays an estranged garden store shopkeeper in the Midwest who befriends a lost high-schooler who returns after a year being kidnapped. The song, aptly entitled “Lawn,” showed just how quickly Blickenstaff can get into character—instantaneously shifting from the gruff Miss Hannigan to a tenderhearted caretaker.

Blickenstaff demonstrated her versatility by performing a tender rendition of Sara Bareilles’ new hit “Manhattan” from her album The Blessed Unrest, explaining how she used the song and album to motivate herself for her upcoming bike ride to support the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Blickenstaff ended the evening performing a song from The Little Mermaid, entitled “Good Times,” which was dropped from the original Broadway production. The song, which tells the story of Ursula’s younger days, was an instant hit—a riff off of traditional Broadway melodies and chord progressions that evoked a nostalgic sense of the good times past (surely, I was ready to join fellow audience members in forming a kick line).

To nobody’s surprise, Blickenstaff received a standing ovation from the audience, who demanded two encores for the bonafide Broadway performer. In true theatrical style, Blickenstaff offered the audience three choices on what to perform as her encore: “A Way Back to Then” from [Title of Show], “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, and Kander and Ebb’s iconic “New York, New York.” Blickenstaff first performed a rousing rendition of “Maybe This Time,” and then proceeded to do one of the best versions of “New York, New York” I have ever heard. For an evening that was full of Broadway showtunes, the encore song not only seemed appropriate for the occasion, but also left audiences wanting even more of her brilliant vocals.

Luckily, Heidi Blickenstaff returns to the Signature Theatre tonight, Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 8 PM for her second and final cabaret this season. Check it out!

Running Time: Approximately one hour, with no intermission.

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Heidi Blickenstaff’s cabaret was performed on Friday, September 14, 2013 at Autumn Cabaret Festival at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. She will perform again TONIGHT – Saturday, September 15, 2013 at 8 PM. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.