When we heard that the great Judi Connelli was performing a solo concert at The Town Hall, you could not have found two more eager and anticipatory souls in all of New York. Every single time we've seen this Australian cabaret/musical theater star perform here, she has been at the head of our Top Ten List. All of our reviews of her have been raves--until now.
In those wonderful earlier shows, Connelli's theatrical style was entirely internal. She never seemed like she was putting on an act. As a consequence, though she was "big," she was never over-the-top; Connelli performed with so much intensity that she obliterated any sense of shtick. During her one-hour cabaret shows in places like the dearly departed Eighty Eight's and, more recently, at The FireBird Café, she barely talked; she simply sang her heart out. On the stage of Town Hall, however, in a concert produced by Donald Smith and presented by The Mabel Mercer Foundation, she talked far too much. And her patter, unlike her voice, was not an ally.
The two-and-a-half-hour show went wrong from the first when, in her opening remarks, Connelli told the audience that we needed to know more about her. "Need" was the operative word. Time and again throughout the evening, she made herself sound self-important when humility would have been a better attitude. At one point, she declared, "You know I can sing"--which is true, of course, but why be so arrogant about it? Connelli spent a lot of time talking about the acclaim she did or did not receive for the shows she has starred in over the last 30 years, then had to fight like hell--when she was singing--to get the audience back on her side. Some returned; some didn't. Nor did it help that the construction of the show was so pedestrian: In painstaking linear fashion, Connell presented her life story. Sure, we want to know more about her, but her talent deserves a more inspired format.
Having said all of this, we don't want to downplay the fact that Connelli still commands the stage when she sings. She has an instrument that is inherently soulful; there isn't just a tear in her voice, there's a flood of them. And, oh, that range! Some might choose to measure it in octaves, but the distance between the high and low notes is so great that one is tempted to call in a surveyor to map the boundaries of this voice.
It's no wonder that Connelli is so much at home in New York; much of what she sings comes from Broadway. Happily working with just a piano played by her musical director, Julia de Plater, she performed numbers from Applause, Into the Woods, Follies, Ragtime, Sunset Blvd., and Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party. Too often, however, the concept of her act got in the way of her songs. For instance, she was just getting up a head of steam in Sondheim's "Move On" when she suddenly started talking, for some reason; it was musical theater interruptus. And when Connelli sang about the death of her mother, focusing on a rose in a spotlight, the sense of overt emotional manipulation was simply not worthy of her. On the other hand, she was at her passionate best in such selections as "I'll Imagine You a Song" and "Time Heals Everything."
We continue to be ardent admirers of Judi Connelli. We arrived at Town Hall with high expectations that were only partially met. Our fervent hope is that she'll return next year with a show that is every bit as brilliant as she is.