Review: Kristin Chenoweth at Strathmore

If you happened to see something akin to celestial beings descending on North Bethesda on Monday evening, don’t worry – that wasn’t actually Heaven coming down, it was just the sound of Kristin Chenoweth’s soprano wafting through the air.

Kristin Chenoweth. Photo courtesy of Strathmore.
Kristin Chenoweth. Photo by Gian di Stefano.

The star was in full voice – a voice that singularly belongs to Ms. Kristin Chenoweth. The Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress and singer held the Strathmore audience in rapt attention for a straight 90 minutes with a refreshing twist on a concert: just the star and a piano. No band. No projections. No schtick. It was particularly thrilling in the grand 1,976-seat concert hall. When the talent is there, it’s a reminder that all the trappings are often little more than an unnecessary distraction.

Chenoweth is perhaps best known for originating the role of “Glinda” in Wicked, but those who have been paying attention know her vocal capabilities are jaw-droppingly versatile. And they were certainly on display at the Strathmore. Her set list included tunes made famous by the Eagles, Les Miserables, My Fair Lady, Stephen Foster, Henry Mancini, Elaine Page, and Willie Nelson. She floated flawlessly between vowels and placements, head voice, chest voice, and a mix-y middle. It was a masterclass in precision and control.

Between songs, Chenoweth chatted in a laid back way – like that really charismatic person who makes everyone laugh at a dinner party. She’s self-deprecating, passionate, and a consummate professional. When handed a mic, many artists today share dismay at the current political climate. While Chenoweth did not hold back on her beliefs (she discussed being an LGBTQ activist and contributing a song to Laura Benanti’s Singing You Home album to support family reunification), she also didn’t tax the audience with hand-wringing or anger over the current administration. Instead, she brought optimism and cheerfulness. While her approach to activism may not be everyone’s preference, this felt like a welcome respite from an authentically positive person.

There was no clear story arc to the song selections, but each did reveal something about Chenoweth. Julie Andrews is her idol. She identifies with Desperado. She feels equally drawn to country music and Broadway tunes. She is a Christian. And because she mentioned it over and over again – perhaps she wishes she had written a hit song or two in her day.

Chenoweth was accompanied by a capable Mary-Mitchell Campbell, her music director and musical supervisor for numerous Broadway shows. The Young Artists of America, a group of giddy high school performers, backed her up for a couple of Gospel numbers at the end of the concert.

Kristin Chenoweth. Photo by Gian di Stefano.
Kristin Chenoweth. Photo by Gian di Stefano.

Highlights of the evening included “50 Years Long,” a song penned by Jason Robert Brown that Chenoweth dedicates to her parents, a beautiful interpretation of “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables, and a mashup of “Always On My Mind” and Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.” All three were tear-jerker moments either for the audience or Chenoweth, or both.

Her choice to encourage people to turn on their smartphones and film “Popular” from Wicked, was amusing, though while filming it on my own iPhone I thought to myself “wait, why am I doing this? I can put my phone down and actually watch her do this live, right now!”

The only song that I’d willingly exchange for basically anything else was one that poked fun at Millennial-isms like “Lit AF” and “Beast Mode.” (Cringe.) Are contemporary comedic songs that hard to come by? Let me be clear though – the rest of the evening more than made up for the shortcomings of that song.

Chenoweth capped the night with a ravishing rendition of “Smile” sung gorgeously without microphone. Thank you Strathmore acoustics! It was a poignant reminder that you can have the sparkly six-inch heels, the hair extensions, and all the glamour that is expected of a twenty-first-century diva, but when it’s all stripped away, you have exactly what brings audiences to their feet: that voice. No schtick? No projections? No problem.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Kristin Chenoweth performed in concert on Monday, April 8, 2019, at the Strathmore Music Center. For future Strathmore events visit strathmore.org.

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